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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter II


ON looking back, our life on board ship seems but a small and unimportant experience compared with times we have passed through since, but it was to us then a great and wonderful adventure. We felt at first as though three or four weeks of enforced inaction would be almost unendurable and would never pass, and we welcomed any little excitement and almost any duty as a means of passing the dragging hours till we should be safely landed on South African shores and ready to be passed on to the front.

After leaving Prince's Dock most of us stayed on deck for a short time, returning the salutes of the crowds we encountered at every turn of the river. I believe we were almost afraid to go below., Since getting aboard we had been undergoing a gradual disillusionment. The kits, not properly stowed, lay about in heaps, mixed up with lifebelts, cloaks, bandoliers, water-bottles, &c., &c., in hopeless confusion, taking up the limited floor space, and making it look to us, In our ignorance, as though not one of the two hundred and forty on the troop- deck could ever have a moment's comfort. Dinner was served amidst all this bustle—and where—oh, where, were our black-coated waiters of Ruchill, the roast beef and green peas? We had time to see how closely the hammock hooks were placed, and only scoffed when we heard that we had each six inches more breadth than the Government allowance. We thought we would be suffocated so close up to the roof. We thought of sea-sickness and all its terrors.

But soon the horses claimed our attention for a while, and by the time they were watered and fed we were nearing Greenock. Passing H.M.S. "Benbow" we were all called on deck and received three hearty cheers from the well-manned yards. The Greenock contingent were looking shorewards for their friends,, and we could hear their distant cheers come over the water from the docks. A good many of us got telegrams. It was our last good-bye, and we went down to tea feeling lonely and dull.

A small knot gathered round the piano, and aired the songs that were soon to become so familiar to us all; but the majority stayed on deck till bed-time, probably being anxious about the weather.

Our quarters in the after troop-deck we shared with the Ayrshire Company, the Edinburgh men being in the upper hold forward. The tables, holding eight and twelve, were arranged across the ship, and the hammocks were swung fore and aft, each man sleeping above his own table. It worried us a lot slinging our hammocks that night. We seemed again to have no room to move. And it was sufficiently amusing to see our efforts to get safely into bed, and when in to stay there. Some, too, did not tie proper knots, and down they came, in a hurry, with a bump. We mostly found hammocks fairly comfortable, especially when the boat was rolling. Some, indeed, would have been only too glad to lie all day in them on the following Monday when we were crossing the Bay.

On Saturday and Sunday we began to get pretty well shaken down, but unfortunately the sea began to rise on Sunday afternoon and shook us all up again. We had passed Bishop's Light and were getting out into the open towards the Bay. By Monday morning it was quite rough, and our old boat was rolling like a log. It was difficult to get anything to eat that day. The food had all to be carried by the mess orderlies from the galley along the main deck and down the stairs—the porridge and meat in large two-handed trays, rather awkward things to negotiate safely down at any time. The orderlies had now to dodge waves while going between the alley-way and the stairs, and it was only too easy to slip on the wet, angled deck. One man getting safely down with a tray of sago was sent flying into another man with a pail of soup, and both went sliding over and back among the soupy mixture, along with odd kits fallen from the racks, and broken dishes from the tables. At night the sea was about its worst, and at tea-time at our table there was very little tea drunk, for a large loaf starting at one end just about cleared the table, cups and all, bumping and jumping over the fiddles in great style.

Many of us were sick, but we could not all indulge our inclination to nurse the malady, for the horses required constant attention. Those who kept moving around got better soonest, though cleaning out stables is not exactly the most settling occupation for a sea-sick man. The rough weather was very trying to the horses. When the ship rolled they kept pressing forwards and backwards to keep their balance, and a number sickened and died.

Our ordinary routine, in which stables three times a day figured most prominently, was varied by manual drills, boat drill, target practice, guards, crushing oats for the horses, cleaning rifles and accoutrements, &c., &c. Target practice was the most interesting, but we did not get much. An attempt was made to tow targets astern, but they always broke loose, so we had to be content with firing odd shots and volleys at cans and bottles drifting past. The officers had revolver practice, but we were not allowed to have any. Guards were mounted all over the ship in true regimental style—one sergeant, one corporal, and eighteen men constituting a guard, and being on duty for twenty-four hours. W& got safely over the Equator, however, without their assistance, De Wet not yet having got into the habit of blowing up the "Line." The hours on guard were two on sentry and four off, but at night we got little sleep. The officers used to turn US Out, for our health, two or three times a night, breaking up entirely the times we were off duty.

For our own amusement we read, wrote, played cards, listened to the pipe band, held concerts or danced, did washings, or were inoculated against typhoid, which was voluntary. The effects of the typhoid inoculation were not nice, consisting of pains in the groin, where the injection was made, and frequently sickness. Of course the "hardy man" was a little in evidence. He was neither put up nor down by it.

While on board we did not get to know our old Doctor from Ayr. Many of us were troubled with sore throats, and his only cure for them, or indeed for anything else, was a warm-water gargle with salt; so we named him from his remedy, "Old Gargle." At first it was a term of reproach, but came to be used affectionately, as our esteem for him rose. The Pipe Band was quite a feature. We had six pipers and two drums, and they generally played every fine evening for an hour or so, under the leadership of Lieutenant Boswell. Our amateur washings were not always, I am afraid, a success. One man was found rubbing lard into a shirt instead of black soap, and wondering why it would not lather. Most of us started letter-writing with the laudable intention neither to forget our friends nor be forgotten by them, and writing on board ship was only a shade worse than at home; but it became a different matter when we got out on the veldt, and few of us kept up to our first standard.

The first and only break in our voyage was a call at Las Palmas. We sighted land early on Friday, 22nd March, in beautiful, clear, bright weather, when the sea was calm and tranquil. The island is so green and fresh, and the steep rocky outline is so distinct, that the favourite comparison to a gem set in the sea strikes one at once as most appropriate. The town, with its white and yellow houses and green terraces, lies in an open bay, and we were much interested in examining it with our glasses, having the prospect of being allowed to land while the "Carthaginian" took in coal. About breakfast time we were all busy changing from our blue fatigue uniforms to our braws. But we were doomed to disappointment. Word was signalled from H .M.S. "Arrogant" that there was no coal to be had, so we had just to weigh anchor and sail off without it. Surfboats, however, had come out as soon as we arrived, and we laid in a supply of fruit, tobacco, and cigars. Business was done over the ship's sides, money being lowered and the goods being drawn up in baskets. Many amusing accidents happened, and there was a deal of amicable swearing both in English and Spanish. At Las Palmas we heard or originated the first of an interminable succession of rumours. We got news of the relief of Kimberley and the surrender of Cronje and rumour had it that the war was over, and that we would be sent straight back home without even landing at Cape Town.

A large Government transport, the "Pinemore," which had crossed the Bay just before us, and had experienced much worse weather, was lying at Las Palmas during our short visit. She had on board some Royal Artillery, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, and the 17th Lancers. Though we left before her, we expected she would pass us, being faster than the old "Carthaginian," and were quite jealous of the men on board. What was our surprise when she steamed past us in Table Bay the day after we arrived, having been about twelve hours behind us all the time.

The days were mostly too warm for comfort, but the nights were grand. Many an evening did we stand in knots by the rail and watch the sun go down, and the fading reflection of the sunset in the water, till all grew dark, and the black water eddying and rushing past behind carried back our thoughts to friends at home, and made us wonder to what unknown fate we were being thus silently and relentlessly hurried.

On the voyage out we were hardly fair judges of the food. It turned out to be equal to ordinary troopship fare, but we had been led to expect better. Our jolly Major told us one day at Maryhill, after having seen through the steamer, that everything was splendid. "There is a piano aboard, and jam aboard, and beer aboard, and damme! boys, what more do you want?" But when we found we had to pay an exorbitant price for the beer and for the other luxuries in the canteen, why, "damme!" it altered the case. Some of the officers had been good enough to send cases of provisions aboard for us, so two of the sections fared not so badly.

Orders were read to us regularly, and with grave ceremony. They often contained such surprising and interesting information as the following:-"Horse number so-and-so, having died, has been struck off the strength of the regiment from this date?' We had probably slung its carcase overboard hail an hour before! Later, on the veldt, when orders frequently contained interesting news as to our movements, or war items from other parts, we never heard of them.

Two days before arriving in Table Bay we began to get ready to leave the ship. Several full-dress parades were held, and we were taught how to roll our cloaks for carrying when on foot. They were made up into rolls five or six feet long, doubled over, and the ends being held together, our mess tins were strapped to them. The finished article looked like a large horse-collar, and felt like one too, hung on one's shoulder.

We arrived at Table Bay on Monday, 19th March, about 5 P.M. On Tuesday afternoon we sailed into the dock, and on Wednesday about mid-day began to disembark. Our kits and saddles had been landed during the night, so we began with the horses We had lost twenty-six altogether— eleven from our company—but the remainder seemed wonderfully lively when they got ashore.

It was late in the afternoon before we got clear away from the docks on our way to Maitland Camp, and we were hot and dusty and dry in spite of tea and grapes kindly supplied by the good people of Cape Town. According to first orders, saddles were to be taken up on waggons, but at the last moment we were told to put them on our horses. The saddles were in sacks, and required a lot of putting together, and it was warm. Some of us laid aside all our gear and strappings, and watched them with one eye while we saddled up with the other. The rest worked away sweating and swearing, encumbered with bandoliers, water-bottles, belts, field-glasses, and bayonets, which they were too anxious about to take off, for things had a nasty way of disappearing just under one's nose, and it was, oh! such a crime to lose anything. After we had done and undone everything half-a-dozen times over, and were actually under way, we were delighted to receive a further bag of grapes per man to eat on the road.


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