'In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! and at even thou shalt say, Would God it were morning!'—Deut. xxviii. 67.
With the occupation of Kilmarnock by the headquarters of the regiment arrived the third and last phase of the war. It had begun with four months' hard fighting, continued with twelve months' hard marching, and was to end with twelve months of weary escorts to convoys, occupation of blockhouses, and garrison work generally. It was, perhaps, in its way, the most trying period of the three, for in addition to unceasing vigilance there was added the dead monotony of week after week in the same place, surrounded by the same faces, and feeding on the same indifferent food. One was buoyed up by the reports published (p. 194) from time to time of the hauls of prisoners made by the various columns, but there was always some pessimist handy to discount one's hopes, and even though the result proved their dismal croakings more or less correct, they might have had the grace, even if they had not the common sense, to keep their miserable opinions to themselves. Thank goodness there were not many of these gentlemen in the regiment. Throughout the war I only heard one man grumble sulkily, and only heard of one man who paid too great a regard to the use of cover. The high tone with which the war had been entered upon was maintained to the very end, and if the regimental officer came out of it with credit, the N.C.O. and private soldier did every bit as well. Hardship, fatigue, stress of weather—everything was accepted as part of the general day's work, and as such cheerfully met and thoroughly done.
Lieutenants B. Maclear and J. P. B. Robinson joined about this time, the former a brother of Percy Maclear, Adjutant of the 1st Battalion.
In spite of all the work, however, time was yet found for a certain amount of play, the exercise of which was very beneficial. Cricket matches were played against the town, the S.A.C., and amongst ourselves, and later on football matches against the town and other regiments. We proved more successful at the latter game than the former: not to be wondered at, seeing that two of our officers—Lieutenants Maclear and Newton—were later on to become International three-quarter backs, the former playing for Ireland and the latter for England.
Lieutenant Knox joined on March 23rd, having been detained nine months through illness on the way up.
In March, Major-General Mildmay Willson, a Guardsman, took over from Colonel Groves the command, which now became 'the District West of Johannesburg.'
On April 17th, Major English proceeded to Bank in command of a small mixed force (one hundred Royal Dublin (p. 195) Fusiliers) to try and catch a Boer force who had been for some time hovering round that station. He returned on the 19th, having seen no Boers.
On the 21st, Captain Watson, formerly in the regiment, came to see us. He was then Adjutant of the Scottish Horse, and was shortly afterwards killed at Moedwil. He had distinguished himself on many occasions, and had received special promotion into the Lancashire Fusiliers.
On the 30th, Major Bird and his half-battalion at last got back. They had done a lot of marching and good work in the Eastern Transvaal with General French's columns, but had not had much fighting. They all seemed glad to be back; it is always satisfactory to have the regiment together, as we have a feeling of dependence on one another that one cannot have when working with other troops, however good they may be.
On May 3rd Captain Kinsman, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, came to see the battalion. He was then in the S.A.C. He had been badly wounded some time ago, having been with the force under General Plumer since the beginning of the war, and present at the relief of Mafeking, and had seen a deal of fighting.
On May 7th Lieutenant Seymour joined the regiment, in which his father had also served.
On May 25th a force went out to escort the S.A.C. to a fort they were to build. The column was under command of Colonel Hicks, and almost immediately met with opposition, the Scottish Horse, on the left, coming in for a good deal of sniping. Sending out his mounted men well ahead, and occupying a ridge in front with the Worcesters, the Colonel then rode on with Colonel Edwardes, S.A.C., to select a spot for the erection of the work. The only casualties were two men wounded and five horses killed, and the force then bivouacked on the positions they held. Next (p. 196) day building was commenced on a small fort and three blockhouses, the building parties being sniped for some time until a detachment of the regiment under Captain Fetherstonhaugh and Lieutenant Maclear went out and drove the Boers away. By the 27th the fort and posts were nearly completed, the enemy still hovering round the neighbourhood, and next day the column returned to Krugersdorp, meeting and dispersing a few Boers on the way back.
On June 3rd Colonel Hicks took over command of the Krugersdorp sub-district, as Colonel Groves was down with measles, as was also Lieutenant Bradford—an extraordinary disease for a man of the Colonel's time of life.
On the 15th of June Colonel Groves handed over the Krugersdorp sub-district to Brigadier-General Barker, R.E. Before leaving he said some very nice things about the regiment, and we on our part were sorry to lose him, as he had always had a good opinion of the battalion, and had assisted the Colonel in his endeavours to put Krugersdorp in a thorough state of defence.
(p. 197) On the 27th Lieutenant Frankland, 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, came to see us. It will be remembered that he was taken prisoner at the very beginning of the war in the armoured-train disaster. Since the capture of Pretoria he had been occupied on the line of communications. He told us that Lieutenant Le Mesurier had probably never got over the exposure to which he was subjected during his escape from Pretoria and on his long march to Delagoa Bay, as he no sooner got over one attack of fever than he was down with another. He also gave us an account of the escape, which was a most gallant affair, and in the light of what has since happened to the only other officers who escaped—Captain Haldane and Mr. Winston Churchill—it seems hard luck that Le Mesurier should have received nothing. He added that Lieutenant Grimshaw had been attached to the Mounted Infantry since the relief, and that Captain Lonsdale had got into the Staff College.
On July 1st two convoys went out, one under Major English and the other under Captain Fetherstonhaugh, not returning until the 6th. The remainder of the month brought forth nothing novel, however, and was spent in strengthening posts and escorting convoys.
August also passed uneventfully, but on September 16th Colonel Hicks was given command of a mixed force some 1000 strong, 170 of whom belonged to the regiment, with orders to move along through the same old Gatsrand country, visit posts, burn farms, collect cattle, &c., &c. He marched accordingly, but met with little opposition until well inside the hilly country, where some sniping took place. After a fortnight's trek he arrived in Pochefstroom, where he found General Willson, who informed him that he was to succeed General Barker in command of the Krugersdorp sub-district. He returned to that place on the 30th, only to find a wire ordering him to go back for the present to his column and to move to a place on the Vaal south of Pochefstroom and (p. 198) turn out a Boer force which was occasioning considerable trouble. Colonel Hicks by a rapid march anticipated the Boers at a pass leading into this valley, their commander, George Hall, afterwards declaring that this step saved us a hundred men, as he had determined to hold the pass till the last.
On October 5th he encountered a force of Boers who were prepared to dispute the ownership of some cattle with him, but he had little difficulty in convincing them that under the circumstances might was undoubtedly right. On the 6th the seven-pounder gun lost by the S.A.C. was recovered, and George Hall, a prominent Boer leader, captured. The Colonel induced him to send a letter out to his commando advising them to give in, which resulted in twenty-two of them surrendering at Pochefstroom a few days later. In addition to this the column captured about fifteen prisoners and brought or sent in very large quantities of stock, mealies, cattle, &c. The Colonel got back to Krugersdorp on the 12th, having returned by train to take over his command.
Lieutenants Frankland and Weldon of ours were present at the fight at Bakenlaagte, when Colonel Benson was killed, and had a hot time of it. Our mounted infantry lost two killed and six wounded. The following description is supplied by Lieutenant Weldon:—
On the afternoon preceding the move from Zwakfontein, where Colonel Benson's column was camped, I was ordered to escort Lieutenant Biggs, R.E., to a drift some miles away on the road to Bakenlaagte: this we accomplished, bringing back one prisoner, whom we took near the drift. At daybreak on the following morning our outposts were attacked before the column had moved out of camp, and the rearguard action commenced. (p. 199) Our mounted infantry formed the right and left flank guards to the light transport, the right under Lieutenant Grimshaw, and the left under Lieutenants Frankland and Weldon. The enemy did not pay much attention to us at first, but after going a little way I galloped with my section to take possession of a small kopje which commanded the route. The Boers made a simultaneous dash for it, resulting in a spirited race, in which we proved victors, having been expedited on the way by two 'belts' from our own pompom. On gaining the hill we at once poured a heavy fire into our opponents, who withdrew. In the meantime considerable difficulty was experienced in getting the transport over the drift, which gave the Boers time to get round us. Eventually, however, most of it was got across and the march resumed. On nearing camp our mounted infantry closed in a bit, when we were suddenly fired on from a farmhouse flying the Red Cross flag, and sustained five or six casualties. We were detailed to a section of the defence of Bakenlaagte, which was practically surrounded. We lay down on the slopes with our heads downhill, and kept the enemy well away, taking the opportunity to improvise some sort of head-cover whenever their fire slackened. Although we fully expected an attack in the night, or at dawn, none was made, there being no sign of the enemy next day.
On December 6th Captain Romer took over the appointment of C.S.O., Krugersdorp Sub-District, from our old friend, Captain Hart, who was appointed to General Knox's staff. We were very sorry to lose him, as from first to last he had done his best to oblige all, and during his term of office made friends with everybody.
On the 9th Lieutenant Britton and fifty men of the regiment proceeded to Middelvlei to relieve a party of the Border regiment.
On the 17th Lieutenant Robinson had to perform the (p. 200) unpleasant duty of carrying out the sentence of death on a Boer prisoner, who had been tried and condemned for shooting three of our men after having surrendered.
General Cooper arrived on the 19th, to say good-bye to the regiment, as he was on his way home. He brought the very welcome intelligence that we were shortly to be relieved, but of course this was only made known to the Colonel at the time.
Lieutenant Renny, who had been A.D.C. to General Cooper, rejoined on the 27th, and brought further rumours to the effect that the regiment was shortly to leave the country, and as orders had come to get in all our employed men, and men from forts, blockhouses, and stations all over the country, it began to look as if there was some truth in the rumours.
On the very last day of 1901 a severe thunderstorm passed right over headquarters, two of our men being struck by lightning.
On the first day of the New Year the order for the battalion to leave South Africa arrived at the brigade office, its destination being Gibraltar, the best of the Mediterranean stations; but next day a wire arrived cancelling the move.
On the 5th, however, Lord Kitchener passed through Krugersdorp, when the Colonel saw him and ascertained that the regiment was to go to Aden.
At 8.30 p.m. on the 11th, part of the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, under Majors Shadforth and Gordon, Captains Swift and Maclear, and Lieutenant Le Mesurier, with some other officers, arrived to take over the defences from the 2nd Battalion.
On the 14th, 300 of the 1st Battalion, under Major Gordon, proceeded down the Pochefstroom line to take over the posts at present held by us.
(p. 201) On the 20th, Captains Kinsman and Rowlands (now serving in the S.A.C.) arrived to say good-bye, and on the 23rd, Colonel Mills and Major Bromilow, 1st Battalion, arrived.On January 26th the regiment fell in for the last time at Kilmarnock, and marched through Krugersdorp to the station. They had made many friends during their stay, and the entire town, Boers as well as Britons, turned out and enthusiastically cheered the corps as it marched out of the town it had first marched into on June 19th, 1900. The night was spent at the railway station, and a start made at 4 a.m. on the 27th. A good view of Talana, from a distance of about five miles, was obtained on the morning of the 28th, and it may easily be imagined with what mixed feelings our thoughts flew back to that grey morning of October 20th, 1899, and our well-loved comrades who had given their lives to gain that gallant victory. Ladysmith was reached about 1 p.m., and Maritzburg in the small hours of the 29th, which was unfortunate, as the regiment had so many friends (p. 202) there. In spite of the hour, however, a large number of the inhabitants were on the platform with various small presents of cigarettes, &c., for the men. Durban was reached a few hours later, when an illuminated address was presented to the regiment, as well as refreshments to officers and men, after which the battalion embarked on board the S.S. Sicilian for conveyance to Aden