'Why gaddest thou about so much?'
Jer. ii. 36.
From August 23rd to 28th we obtained a very welcome week's rest, which would have been more enjoyable had the weather not broken badly, resulting in a succession of cold, high winds and heavy thunderstorms. These latter were of the most abominable description and a severe trial to those of us whose nervous systems were so constituted as to be affected by them. Some declared that they liked them; others frankly admitted that they detested them. They seemed to have a way of coming along about 4 p.m., and as soon as they got into position, immediately above our heads, opened fire. Needless to say, in the course of the long campaign there were a good many very narrow shaves, and one of our men was actually killed by lightning. The storms were almost invariably accompanied by torrential rain, which, though adding greatly to our discomfort, mitigated the danger, the local cognoscenti assuring us that even they looked upon a dry thunderstorm as no joke.
The regiment was a good deal split up at this time owing to the men we had dropped behind us on our late trek; they had fallen out from a variety of causes, but ninety per cent. of them on account of sore feet or lack of boots. There were no less than 160 at Wolverdiend, 50 at Rhenoster, 40 at Wolverhoek, and so on. The Colonel made many attempts to gather up his chickens once more, but when we started on our next trek we were still deficient of a good many. Major Bird left us at this time to go to Natal, where he was to arrange about our property, and organize orderly-room (p. 142) papers, etc. Major English was unfortunately down with a severe attack of dysentery, and had it not been for Major Rutherford's arrival on the morning of the 29th the battalion would have been Majorless. Our padre, Father Mathews, presented us with a very fine pair of koodoo horns which he picked up at a store while we were here. He had originally been attached to the Royal Irish Fusiliers, but had come to us after Nicholson's Nek. He remained with us till the end of the war, and proved himself a brave soldier and a welcome member of the mess.
Orders were eventually issued for a start at 6 a.m. on the morning of the 29th, but a night of heavy rain and succession of thunderstorms put an early start out of the question, and we did not get off till 3 p.m. The force was known as the Pochefstroom Column, and our mission, as far as we knew, was to lay waste the country between Krugersdorp and (p. 143) that place, to fight the enemy whenever we met him, to bring in women and children, to destroy anything in the way of forage, &c., which might be useful to our enemies, if we could not bring it along for our own use; to collect waggons, cape-carts, animals, harness, &c.; and generally to carry fire and sword throughout the land.
Moving off in a southerly direction through the town, we came to what should have been a harmless little drift, about two or three miles out. The recent rains had, however, transformed it into a formidable obstacle, and waggon after waggon stuck hopelessly in its miry embrace. The General, therefore, determined to halt on a rising slope on the far side, and as many waggons as possible were man-handled over the bog. Tents were pitched, but scarcely were they up when a furious storm burst overhead. In a minute everything and everybody was soused through and through, the scene being vividly lit up by the almost continuous flashes of vivid lightning, while the crashing, bellowing boom of the thunder in our ears made voices inaudible and orders perfectly useless. What sort of teas the regimental cooks prepared we did not know, but the invaluable and ubiquitous Corporal Tierney managed to bring each of us a cup of hot tea and a rasher or a steak in our tents. The storm lasted till dawn, when the heavy clouds, as if despoiled of their victims by the rising sun, reluctantly drew off northwards. A glorious morning was the consequence, but, of course, there was no chance of trekking for some hours to come.
At 2 p.m. a start was again made, but as the tents and everything else were soaked through, and weighed fifty per cent. more than they would under ordinary circumstances, there was little hope that our transport animals would be able to drag them through any bad drifts. We only managed to do some seven miles before darkness came on, when we camped for the night at the Madeline Gold-mine. It was jumpy work here, as the whole place was honeycombed with (p. 144) prospecting-holes and ditches, varying in depth from three feet to about three hundred. How on earth no one fell in must ever remain a mystery, as, to add to the delightful freshness of the situation, a large herd of bullocks took command, and meandered through the camp, one of which moved the mess president on some considerable distance, fortunately for him with a horn on each side of him, instead of one through him, as was doubtless intended.
We marched from the Madeline at 7 a.m. on August 31st, and after trekking some miles arrived at a large coal-mine, which seemed to be in very good order. This country had been the scene of a goodish bit of fighting. Not far off the ill-fated Jameson raid had come to its inglorious conclusion; a little further on the Gordons had suffered severely during the advance on Johannesburg; and here the Pochefstroom column was to be 'blooded.'
We did not know that anything interesting was on the tapis until we saw the white cotton-wool puffs of our shrapnel bursting against a range of kopjes in our front. Then the Colonel told us that there were supposed to be a good many Boers on ahead, and that the General had gone off with a portion of the column to attack them, while we were to advance and seize and hold a nek, with a view to cutting off the retreating Boers, or threatening their left flank, or reinforcing our right, or some obscure purpose. It was the same in so many of our days of scrapping and trekking. Talk about the fog of war: we who were actually in the battle knew nothing about it. Doubtless the Commanding Officer was in the know, but the Company Officer, the commander of what is now recognised as the real fighting unit, he knew nothing. It was a funny fight. We trekked along, unconcernedly watching the pretty effect of our friends the gunners' practice; able with glasses to see the stones and dust driven ahead when the shells burst low; but unable to see any Boers. On reaching our destined spot we lay down (p. 145) and had a smoke, and thought of all sorts of things other than fighting, until at last news came from the General, and we heard we had fifteen casualties. So it had been quite a battle after all, as fights were going in those days, when any scrap that resulted in a casualty was known as a hardly-contested engagement.
On the 1st we moved to a rather pretty camp, close under the far side of the hills, called Jakfontein. The General and the troops he had with him on the 31st arrived at about 5.15 p.m., and camped alongside. The General told the Colonel they had had quite a victory yesterday, driving the Boers from their position, and occupying it at nightfall. They also thought they had done a good deal of damage to them with our guns, as they withdrew.
The column did not march on the 2nd, but two companies ('E' and 'F') under Captain Shewan proceeded to Bank Station as escort to the wounded, while two more ('A' and 'B'), under Major Rutherford, were sent off to commence the burning and looting, which, as far as we could understand, was the raison d'être of the column. However that might be, there was a tremendous fuss on their return, and all sorts of accusations made re looting. There is no disguising the fact that we were altogether too squeamish, and that the orders on these and subsequent occasions were capable of more than one interpretation. Here were we in an enemy's country, badly off for a cart, let us say, for the officers' mess; the very thing is found in an unoccupied farm; to bring it along and use it was to loot: to burn it was to obey orders. At this length of time it is easy to write dispassionately, and there can be no harm in saying that it was vexing to be found fault with when under the impression that one was doing one's best for the general good, and not in any way profiting oneself. A few days later an officer searching a farm for concealed weapons, &c., came across a heavy ebony stick—just the thing he wanted. The (p. 146) old Boer lady made a great fuss about his taking it, saying it was all she had to beat the Kaffirs with. That finally determined him, more especially as he was not exactly standing on ceremony at the time, seeing the next company was being sniped at, and his turn liable to come at any moment.
Captain G. S. Higginson was appointed Remount officer, and from this moment we began to lose sight of him, to everybody's great regret.
After spending another day in bringing in forage and supplies, the column started at 9 p.m. on the 3rd on a night march. For the first four or five miles all went well, and the advance-guard, under the careful leading of Captain Romer, maintained the right direction. Then, however, the road made a sharp turn, and although Captain Romer's party followed the turn right enough, part of his advance-guard, under a subaltern, went wandering off into the black night. It took some time to retrieve them, and as the column immediately afterwards came to a deep drift, it was considerably delayed. 'G' company was sent up a high hill on the left to guard that flank until the whole of the transport and rearguard was past, and the cold on the top was a thing to remember. The main column got into bivouac shortly after 1 a.m., but this unfortunate company was out till 5, which, seeing the march was resumed at 6, was rather hard luck. However, there was plenty of that going for everybody in those days, and after the usual short 'grouse,' the sleepless night was forgotten.
After moving into the hills about eight miles further, and passing through some beautiful farms, with every peachtree a mass of glorious bloom, the column halted. The Imperial Yeomanry, who had been scouting far ahead, now found themselves perilously involved with a small body of the enemy. General Hart, with a portion of the column, including the artillery and naval gun, moved out to extricate them, and very soon we heard heavy fighting going on. He (p. 147) succeeded in his object, however, at the expense of four of the Yeomanry wounded and one man killed. In the meantime, Colonel Hicks had thrown out outposts on the hills, 'G' company coming in for another sleepless night, probably through some mistake in the roster. Captain Nelson, R.M.L.I. (attached), had a somewhat peculiar experience. Having been detained for some purpose when his company was going out, he gave Lieutenant Marsh, his subaltern, orders where to go, and later on followed himself. But then he couldn't find them. Nor could the other companies on other hills see anything of them, though signals were flashed in the direction they had taken. It was not until next morning that they were discovered, quite close to the place they had been ordered to go to. It was characteristic of the nature of the country in which we were operating, and the excellent manner in which they hid themselves, that Captain Nelson should have missed them, for at one time he must have passed quite close to the piquet.
Next morning Boers were reported in the vicinity. It is impossible to say they were in our front, as our front coincided with the report of the first visible Boer, and we simply went for anything we saw. Rumour put this force at 700 strong, but most people considered that an exaggerated estimate. We moved off in three columns: the South Wales Borderers took the right, moving along the difficult, serrated tops of the hills; the cavalry and yeomanry took the lower, more undulating, easier hills to the left, while the rest of us with the guns moved along in the centre; the General, conspicuous by a large red flag which a trooper carried behind him, moving wherever any opposition presented itself. It must be the unanimous opinion of all troops who knew our General, that a braver man never fought in action, but at the same time the man who carried that red flag deserved some honourable distinction. Perhaps he got it; probably he did not.
(p. 148) After moving some two or three miles, our further way was blocked by mauser-fire from a very ominous, black-looking kopje which stretched down into the valley from the high ground on our left. The guns came into action against this hill at a range of about two thousand yards, and it seemed as if a golden-crested wren could not have escaped if it had been unlucky enough to be there. The shrapnel kept up an almost incessant hail, covering the wooded sides of the kopje with jets of round white balls of smoke, while every now and then the deeper note of the 4·7 was followed by a huge cloud of dust and yellowish vapour thrown up, and off, by the explosion of the lyddite in the huge projectile. How many Boers held that hill will probably never be known; only four were found. But a strange spectacle ensued. Emerging from the cover on the far side, rode, ventre-à-terre, a solitary horseman. Immediately two companies extended in our front opened fire on him. How he escaped was a marvel, for in front, behind, on every side of him could be seen 'the bullets kicking dust-spots on the green.' But escape he did, and many a 'Good luck to you' went after him, for he was a bold man to have stayed as long as he had, and fully deserved to escape. Our bombardment had effected one useful purpose. Amongst the killed was a Commandant called Theron, a brave, enterprising young fellow of about twenty-five years of age, whose exploits had already stamped him as a born leader of men. Our own casualties amounted to four yeomen wounded.
We camped a little further on, and buried our enemy, and one of our own men who had died from his wounds, side by side, with all due honour, ceremony, and respect.
September 6th was an unpleasant day. In the first place we made a very early start, which, after the two previous nights' work, was rather hard on the troops. Several had been without sleep for two nights, and engaged with the (p. 149) enemy all day. As far as fighting went this long-range scrapping was not of course worthy of the name, but as far as discomfort and fatigue were concerned, the operations were entitled to the most dignified and resonant title in the vocabulary. The 6th was an example. In the first place there was no fighting; in the second place, there was very little marching; in the third place, there was no rest; in the fourth place, there was no food. In the absence of definite orders the commanding officers delayed for a long time ere venturing to outspan and cook: when they did do so orders immediately arrived, scattering companies right, left, and centre, on the burning and capturing expeditions. Finally, when orders were published, they were for another night march, the object and destination of which were concealed even from officers commanding regiments. However, there was nothing for it but to make the best of an unpleasant state of affairs, to snatch a few mouthfuls of food whenever possible and a few minutes' sleep at any opportunity and once more the long column wound its way through the (p. 150) night. It arrived on the morning of the 7th at Wolverdiend station, where there was now a considerable garrison, among them 140 of our own men, who had been there since the De Wet trek. The day was passed in shifting camp and fatigue work in the station, where there was much to do in the way of loading and unloading trains.
Captain Romer got three days' leave here to meet his father, the famous judge, who had come out as President of the Royal Commission.
At 9 p.m. the column started on another night march, the battalion supplying the rearguard. It was weary work waiting on those occasions. Tents were struck, and coats, blankets, &c., packed on the waggons an hour before the advance-guard was due to march off, after which there was nothing to do but lie down on the ground in the bitter cold, and wait till all the transport had got away. Nor did the advance-guard have very much the best of it, as they of course arrived hours before the waggons, and had their shivering turn in the early morning, at the other end of the march.
By 10 a.m. the column arrived at Klerkskraal, a small and very widely scattered village on the banks of the beautiful Mooi River, a stream of the clearest and most delicious water. Companies were sent to clear out the neighbouring farms as usual, and a good deal of information was gathered about a considerable quantity of the enemy, who had been trekking through for some time past in small groups.
A dozen fine Indian tents, the gift of Rai Bahadur Boota Singh, of Rawal Pindi, were handed over to us here for the use of the officers. Very welcome they proved, as our old ones were nearly worn out.
Sunday, September 9th, 1900, was a day that will live long in the annals of the battalion. It was given out that in view of the hard work done by the troops, the day would be treated as a day of rest, almost immediately following which order came another, detailing two companies of each (p. 151) corps to go out on the unpleasant foraging duties. The roster declared that 'G' and 'H' companies were next in succession, and these two companies started immediately, officers and men snatching a hasty and very scratch breakfast before starting. They were out all day, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., during which time they were gathering in supplies of straw, fodder, &c., together with all carts, waggons, and harness in a serviceable condition, burning such as they could not carry away with them. At about 5 p.m. a heliograph message recalled them to camp, in reaching which they had to cross a small stream with a snipe-marsh on either side: the waggons of course stuck, but the men set to with a will, impelled doubtless by a keen desire to get back to their dinners in camp, and dragged them out one by one with ropes. A dismal surprise was in store for them. For even as they came in sight of the camp, it was struck, and in place of the dinners they had so fondly anticipated, some tea alone awaited them. The officers were even worse off, for as the mess president had been employed with the two companies out foraging, no one else had thought of keeping even a cup of tea for them, and, exhausted as they were by ten hours' work without food, under a burning sun, they received the pleasing intelligence that the column was starting at once to march to Pochefstroom, a distance variously estimated at from thirty-five to thirty-eight miles.
The force marched in three parts. First, mounted men, guns, and 'A' and 'E' companies Royal Dublin Fusiliers in waggons. Then the main body of infantry, and lastly the transport with 'G' and 'H' companies Royal Dublin Fusiliers as rearguard. There was a moon for most of the way, but it only served to make the surroundings more weird. Parallel to our right ran a low range of hills, whilst on the left was the Mooi River, with a farm looming up out of the night every mile or so along the way. There was one halt of half an hour towards midnight, but the remainder of the (p. 152) halts were merely of the usual five minutes' duration. And hard it was to resume the weary way at the end of even those brief spells of rest. Every one was so fit that the actual marching was nothing like so trying as the difficulty of keeping awake through the long, dreary hours, and one would time after time drop asleep as one walked mechanically along, only to wake in the very act of falling. Frederickstadt was reached in the small hours of the morning, and the stream crossed to its left bank. There was then a halt of about an hour to close up the transport, and very welcome it was, for we were still an ordinary day's march from our destination. Turning to our right, we brought the Gatsrands on our left, and the word went forth that the Boers were in them, a report which seemed to be confirmed a moment later as a blaze of light suddenly appeared above their summits. 'There they are!' 'That's their signal lamp!' were the comments that greeted the glory of the morning star, whether Jupiter or Venus, on that as on many a previous and subsequent occasion. On straggled the column, many of the men completely worn out, (p. 153) having been reluctantly compelled to avail themselves of the permission to ride on the waggons; the remainder, with grim determination to march till they dropped, trudging patiently and silently on. At last came the welcome flush of dawn; no 'envious streaks' these, but the first message from the longed-for day which ended that abominable night. When Pochefstroom finally came in sight it was still a good five miles off, and those last five miles were as bad as any part of the march. For though in some mysterious way the coming of day had dispelled to a great extent the deadly sleepiness from which most of us suffered, our aching limbs now began to make themselves manifest, and those far-off trees never seemed to get any nearer. However, by ten o'clock the last man was in, but very nearly done. It had been a remarkable march—very remarkable seeing the conditions under which some of the troops performed it. For to do from thirty-five to thirty-eight miles, most of it by night, on an empty stomach, after a hard ten hours' work under a hot sun, in sixteen hours, is a performance of which any troops may be justly proud.
Nor was it altogether without result, for our mounted and waggon-carried troops had arrived much earlier, and, fairly taking the place by surprise, had surrounded it, killed seven, and captured some seventy or eighty prisoners, and put a good many more to ignominious and hasty flight.
We also obtained some draught beer. Beer! None of us had tasted it for months. How it went down! Yet our memory of it is sad, for the unfortunate manager of the brewery was afterwards shot by the Boers for selling it to us. The column remained at Pochefstroom till the 12th, our stay being darkened by the melancholy death of the signalling officer, (p. 154) Lieutenant Maddox, of the Somersetshire Light Infantry, who was shot through the heart while going round his stations.
On the 12th Colonel Hicks took command of a small force which moved out to occupy some kopjes overlooking two drifts over the Mooi River. Starting at about 3 p.m., we did not reach our destination (some five miles south of Frederickstadt) till dark. Somewhat to our surprise, the hills were unoccupied, as Boers were known to be in the vicinity, while there had been a certain amount of distant sniping throughout the march. Putting piquets at the drifts, the infantry and guns occupied one hill, and the mounted troops another hard by. We had just turned in for the night when a sharp rifle-fire broke out all along the front, to which our sentries were not slow to respond. We immediately occupied the posts to which we had been assigned, but the firing soon died away. No one was hit by the enemy, but an unfortunate trooper in Marshall's Horse was shot by a comrade, and later on succumbed to the wound.
(p. 155) At daybreak on the 13th, we located a Boer laager some five miles out on the plain. One of our officers had a deer-stalking telescope, with which it was possible to follow the movements of the Boers as they woke up, a most interesting spectacle. They were of course far out of range of our fifteen-pounders, but just as we were regretting our inability to get at them, General Hart's force from Pochefstroom could be seen trekking slowly in their direction from our left front. We, from our elevated position, could see what the Boers could not, and to watch our comrades creeping slowly nearer, while the Boers were loitering about and stretching themselves, was a sight the opportunity to view which was seldom afforded in the course of the war. But long before the General got close enough to do any harm, the alarm went. Any one who has ever seen a pebble cast into an ants' nest can realise the proceedings of the next two minutes. Darting about in every direction, the Boers caught their horses and inspanned their transport with a celerity which fairly took our breath away, and in what seemed an incredibly short (p. 156) space of time they were trekking away across our right front, their movements still more hastened by a few rounds from the naval guns. Moreover, they came within very long range of our fifteen-pounders, so we were enabled to return them a 'quid' for their 'quo' of the previous night, with probably about the same result to their skins, though one riderless horse could be seen careering about.
A helio message from the General instructed us to march off and join him at Frederickstadt, where we arrived that afternoon, spending the morning in the usual domiciliary visits, getting a really handsome waggon for the mess, and carefully searching a farmhouse belonging to the Bezuidenhouts.
On the 14th there was a considerable amount of firing in the neighbourhood, but nobody seemed to take much interest in it. As, however, it resulted in the loss of twelve mules and some waggons, and one gunner wounded, it is hoped that we did some damage in return.
On the 15th Colonel Hicks again took out a small force of all arms, for the purpose of getting in more stores, of burning Bezuidenhout's farm (it being now clear he had murdered two telegraphists), and to hold the kopjes we were on the 13th, while the Somersetshire Light Infantry marched to join us from Pochefstroom. The country was now thoroughly infested with Boers, who made some slight effort to oppose Colonel Hicks. He very soon brushed them aside, however, and, marching his force along two parallel ranges of low hills, arrived at the place where we had bivouacked on the night of the 12th-13th. Dinners were cooked on arrival before the companies went out marauding. Whilst they were being prepared a cartridge went off in one of the fires, and severely wounded one of the cooks, the bullet penetrating his chest. This poor fellow was later on sent into hospital at Krugersdorp, and, as the wound (p. 157) never improved, was eventually invalided home. But the line was blown up just in front of his train, and he was brought back to hospital. He soon began to recover, and one day went wandering about without his hat, got sunstroke, and died, one piece of bad luck on the top of another, and a melancholy example of how 'when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.'
A convoy under Captain H. W. Higginson, arrived at Frederickstadt at this time, after having been considerably pestered by some Boers who had shelled him with a nine-pounder Krupp, and severely wounded one of our men. Luckily, the General had sent out a small force with two guns to meet this convoy, or it might have had a very much worse time.
Next day Bezuidenhout's farm was duly burnt, and at 3 p.m. the force started to march back to Frederickstadt, the Somersetshire Light Infantry (wing) under Major Williams, with eighty prisoners, a large number of refugees and waggons, starting an hour earlier, having of course further to go. The march was not interfered with, and the force reached its old quarters once more before dark.
The dreary monotony of these days and nights of trekking and foraging suffered a variation on the 17th. In the morning 'A' company, under Major Rutherford, took over the eighty odd prisoners from Pochefstroom, and marched off with them to Wolverdiend. In the afternoon a shell suddenly burst in the middle of the camp. The cheek of these foes of ours. The first arrival was shortly followed by several more in quick succession, some of which landed in camp, and some of which went over our heads. We turned out, lowered the tents, and then lay down in extended order, trying to locate the position of the hostile gun. At last some one saw the flash, after which our naval gun and fifteen-pounders picked up the range with admirable celerity, immediately silencing the opposition. At a range of 3600 yards, the second shot from the naval gun had burst within (p. 158) four feet of the marks of the Krupp nine-pounder which had been shelling us.
At the time the enemy opened fire a regimental court-martial for the trial of twenty-one prisoners had just assembled, under the presidency of Captain Shewan. On the arrival of the shells, the court, escort, witnesses and prisoners dissolved themselves with one accord, and were not afterwards reassembled.
'In such a time as this it is not meet
That every nice offence should bear his comment.'
The sun was in the enemy's eyes, and the village of Frederickstadt almost immediately behind our camp, which may account in some measure for the indifference of their fire, as we must have offered a magnificent target to them. As it was, our only losses were four horses, not a man being hit. But we were fairly caught napping.
The General ordered the regiment to take possession of the hill, which was done without any further fighting, two companies being left on outpost duty on its summit.
On the 18th some of the usual desultory sniping commenced on the other side of the camp, but a demonstration by the inlying piquet ('G' company, 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers) was sufficient to put a stop to it.
Major Bird arrived back from Maritzburg. Next day the trek commenced once more. A small force was left behind under command of Major Bird to hold the hills from which we had been shelled, and to take care of most of the transport. The remainder of the column marched at 11 p.m. on Ventersdorp, where some Boers were reported. After marching all night and covering some twelve miles, the enemy opened fire in front and on both flanks. Our guns came into action, and a sort of running fight was maintained. Eventually the (p. 159) enemy took up a more definite position, when General Hart ordered Colonel Hicks, with two companies of the regiment, two guns and a pompom, to advance to a small ridge on one flank, while he with the remainder of the force marched round the enemy's rear. This resulted in the evacuation of their position, when Colonel Hicks's small party got an opportunity to deliver an effective fire on them.
Next day sniping at the bivouac began at dawn, but the troops were allowed a meal before resuming their march. Colonel Hicks was again detailed to take a kopje from which a considerable but ineffectual fire was coming. Moving steadily on, with his 200 men in widely-extended order, he brought a maxim into action, which had the effect of clearing the hill, but the long-range fighting went on without a break till the evening.
Having more or less broken up the Boers in this direction, orders were issued for the return march to Frederickstadt. An early start was made, and at 10 a.m. a halt and outspan ordered. At mid-day the officers commanding units were sent for, when the General informed them that a large force of Boers, under Steyn and De Wet, with women and children, 3000 strong, was reported in the neighbourhood of Klerksdorp. Rumour further said that they were so bewildered by our apparently aimless midnight movements that they neither knew where to go nor what to do. The General added that it was his intention to march again in the afternoon in their direction, to have another outspan at dusk, and then to march all night and surprise them next morning. The commanding officers looked at one another in blank amazement, for they knew better than the General could the effect these constant nights without sleep and days of fighting without food were having on their men, but there was nothing for it, and the General called upon his troops for one more supreme effort. At the same time he heliographed to Major Bird to march from Frederickstadt and join him en route, which was done.
(p. 160) Major Bird's force had not been left altogether unmolested during this time. The company of Somersetshire Light Infantry were holding a small knoll in prolongation of his left, and some 2000 yards off. Against them the Boers brought up their Krupp gun which they had used against us two or three days before. The range was considerable, but they managed to reach their target; yet, though they fired twenty-three shells into the camp of this company, the only damage they did was to knock the top off a box of eggs without breaking a single egg. They also managed to pitch a shell or two amongst the transport. Our fifteen-pounders endeavoured to reply, but, in spite of digging deep holes for the trails, were unable to reach the ridge from which the Boers were firing.
Major Bird's force having joined hands with the main column shortly after dark, the long march was resumed at 10 p.m. It was a pitch-dark night, and the difficulty of keeping in touch, and the still greater difficulty of keeping the transport in touch, wore out tempers as well as sinews. On one occasion the regiment as nearly as possible got left. We were following the first-line transport of the corps immediately in front of us, and keeping close up to it, but the Colonel got anxious, and, after several times asking the adjutant if he was certain we were in touch, told him to ride on and see. He came back in a few minutes to say that there was nothing to be seen ahead. The carts in front had lost touch, and they were all we had to guide us. The adjutant at once cantered on, and had the good fortune to shortly pick up the tail of the column, when everything was soon all right again. The march continued the whole night, dawn being heralded by the corncrake-like note of the pompom, which led us to hope we had effected our object. But once again it was not to be, for the Boer laager had moved off, and from the top of a small hill could be seen trekking away about 7000 yards distant. Men and horses had been at it since 6 a.m. the day before, and any further pursuit was out (p. 161) of the question. Indeed, an extra two or three miles that had to be done to reach a better camping-ground almost proved the last straw. The right half-battalion had marched thirty-three miles in the twenty-four hours, and only slept on one night out of the last three, while the left half-battalion had done twenty-six miles in eighteen hours.
Our enemy had slipped away once more at the critical moment, but our spirits were raised all the same by the arrival of a dispatch, which we understood called us back to Krugersdorp and hinted that the war was over.
After a day's rest at this rather pleasant camp, the force moved into Pochefstroom (eighteen miles), and marched past the General in the Market Square on the 25th, remaining there until the 27th. It had been on the move for nearly a month with very little rest, during which time men and horses had undoubtedly got very wiry and fit. But beyond collecting a certain amount of stores, cattle, and forage, it is doubtful whether all the forced marches and strenuous exertions had been of much benefit, or whether they served to bring hostilities much nearer to a conclusion. Although the enemy, in more or less force, had been viewed practically every day, it had always been impossible to bring him to close quarters, and the policy of wearing out infantrymen's hearts, tempers, constitutions, and boots in abortive pursuits of mounted enemies was, and in the light of all that we now know still is, open to question, for a reference to the Times history of the war shows that all our wanderings and meanderings are summed up in very few sentences, the most pregnant of which is to the effect that word had gone out to the Boer Commandoes not to interfere with us.
On the 27th the column started on its march back to Krugersdorp, and did the distance (sixty-two miles) in four easy stages. It marched by the road south of the Gatsrand Hills, with the Losberg on its right, and with the exception of one day (29th) without molestation from the enemy. On that (p. 162) occasion they made a somewhat determined attack on the rearguard, attempting to cut off some waggons, and the last few miles of the march took the shape of a running fight. The General had ridden on ahead with the cavalry to our next camp, so Colonel Hicks sent back a couple of guns to the rearguard, who shook off the terrier-like attentions of the enemy without very much trouble; but they had delayed the march a good deal, and it was not till late in the evening that every one got in, and heard that the war really was over at last. An officer in the regiment who was considerably exhausted sank on to his valise, too tired to care for anything. His servant said to him, 'We'll be in Krugersdorp to-morrow, sorr, and I'll be able to get yiz some claning matherials,' to which his weary master replied, 'I don't care a damn whether I'm clean or whether I'm dirty.' In answer his man made the following cryptic remark: ''Tis no use talking like that, sorr. Lord Roberts says the war is over, and we'll begin soldiering now.'
The following summary of the work done was published for information:—
'Summary of Work of Pochefstroom Column.
'The Pochefstroom column started from Krugersdorp on the 29th August, and returned on 30th September. The task of the column is to assist in stamping out the resistance of the remaining scattered forces of the enemy by hunting them, and depriving them of their supplies of food and transport, with a view to bringing the war to an end. In the first cruise of 33 days the column has marched 310 miles—the length of England from Portsmouth to Scotland—and was in action with the enemy on 29 days, putting them to flight on each occasion. The column's casualties were only 3 killed, 24 wounded, and 3 missing. The Boers lost considerably according to accounts of Kaffirs present; we found some of their dead, including General Theron. In prisoners (p. 163) of war and important arrests, the column took 96 of the enemy. Loyal inhabitants, numbering 316 men, women, and children, were rescued from Pochefstroom, and safely conveyed to Wolverdiend. General Liebenburg ordered General Douthwaite to attack this convoy, but Douthwaite thought it dangerous, and was arrested by Liebenburg for suggesting that he, Liebenburg, "had better do it himself." The convoy was not attacked. The column took from the enemy the following cattle: 2720 sheep and 3281 goats; 1066 sacks of mealies, 104 sacks of meal, 2 waggon-loads of mealie cobs, 12 sacks of wheat, 847 loaves of bread, 162 sacks of potatoes, 68 sacks of oats, 33 sacks of bran, 36,000 bundles of oat-hay, 299 bales of chaff, 400 bundles of manna-hay, 90 horses, 28 ponies, 11 mules, 36 waggons, 31 carts, and destroyed 45 waggons and carts that could not be taken away.
A. Hart (Captain),
'C.S.O. Pochefstroom Column.