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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter IV


ON Wednesday, 9th May, we left Worcester by train. Our destination was unknown, but since we were travelling north we were satisfied. The train, bearing our entire company, was a long one, consisting of three baggage waggons, fifteen horse boxes, holding eight or nine horses each, two second-class coaches, and one third. Those of us in the narrow, straight-backed third-class compartments had an uncomfortable time of it. Eight were crowded into each, and no one got lying down, or even sitting at ease, during the two days and nights we were journeying.

Most of us were on the outlook to see what we could of the Yeomanry Hospital at Deilfontein, which was passed after dark the first night. On the following day we rattled along through the Great Karroo—barren, rocky, scrub- covered country, with hardly a sign of life, only an odd nigger now and again or a strayed-looking ostrich. About midnight we reached Dc Aar, and Lieutenant Connal came along the train with the joyful news that we were going to Warrenton to form part of the Mafeking relief expedition. Our delight knew no bounds. It had been drummed into us, both before we left home and after, that—oh! we would never see anything—that the Yeomanry were to be kept on lines of communication—so that we could hardly believe our ears. On the second day we passed the historic battlefields of Orange River, Belmont, Gras Pan, Modder River, and Magersfontein, and reaching Kimberley in the afternoon were entertained to tea on the station platform by Miss Rhodes and other ladies, of the town.

In about an hour we were off again, and reached Warrenton before dark. This was the farthest north we could get by rail, for the Boers held the rest of the line, and had blown up bridges and culverts to delay our advance. The big railway bridge over the Vaal River is only about a mile and a half past Warrenton Station, and we saw the wreck of it when we went to water our horses. The engineers were busy constructing a temporary bridge, which, being much lower than the old one, required steep approaches to be made down either bank.

On 14th May we began our wanderings in earnest, when we forded the Vaal River. One man got a nasty wetting while crossing. His pony fell, and he plunged head first into the water; then he dropped his rifle, and had to grope about for it. A chill and fever resulted, which laid him up, and he did not manage to rejoin us for several months. Having had the idea that only the river separated us from

the enemy, we were now in a state of intense excitement. It was bright moonlight, and our fellows on stable-guard went peering about into the scrub round the camp, ready to give the alarm if ever a leaf stirred or a shadow seemed to move. As a matter of facts we must have been completely surrounded and protected by infantry camps and pickets, for Barton's Brigade, under General Hunter, had crossed the Vaal between Barkly West and Warrenton, had defeated the Boers at Rooidam, and was occupying Fourteen Streams, which was just across the drift. We had queer ideas then of how the Boers would attack us; we had no conception of the effectiveness of long range fire; and our great desire was for a hand to hand encounter. We would actually have delighted in an order to gallop into a Boer Iaager, and would hardly have given two thoughts to the bullets. This is not said in bravado, for goodness knows, though all would not confess it, we minded the bullets plenty later on. But certainly the first few times we were under fire we were far too much roused, excited, and interested to have any reasonable sense of the danger we were running. We would probably have behaved after the manner of a company of Welsh Yeomanry, of whose exploits we heard later. They had been many months in the country without firing a shot or seeing a Boer, and wrote to Lord Roberts, so the story goes, asking to be sent to China. This request he could not grant, but they were shortly afterwards moved out to hold a hill on the fortified line between Bloemfontein and Ladybrand. Receiving a heliograph the enemy, we were now in a state of intense excitement. It was bright moonlight, and our fellows on stable-guard went peering about into the scrub round the camp, ready to give the alarm if ever a leaf stirred or a shadow seemed to move. As a matter of fact, we must have been completely surrounded and protected by infantry camps and pickets, for Barton's Brigade, under General Hunter, had crossed the Vaal between Barkly West and Warrenton, had defeated the Boers at Rooldam, and was occupying Fourteen Streams, which was just across the drift. We had queer ideas then of how the Boers would attack us; we had no conception of the effectiveness of long range fire; and our great desire was for a hand to hand encounter. We would actually have delighted in an order to gallop into a Boer Iaager, and would hardly have given two thoughts to the bullets. This is not said in bravado, for goodness knows, though all would not confess it, we minded the bullets plenty later on. But certainly the first few times we were under fire we were far too much roused, excited, and interested to have any reasonable sense of the danger we were running. We would probably have behaved after the manner of a company of Welsh Yeomanry, of whose exploits we heard later. They had been many months in the country without firing a shot or seeing a Boer, and wrote to Lord Roberts, so the story goes, asking to be sent to China. This request he could not grant, but they were shortly afterwards moved Out to hold a hill on the fortified line between Bloemfontein and Ladybrand. Receiving a heliograph message one day that a large party of Boers had laagered about seven miles from their camp, they saddled up and galloped right in amongst them in the dark, firing and clubbing with their rifles, till, being hard pressed by the superior number of the Boers, they drew off slowly and returned to camp. Older troops, with more experienced leaders, might have been more cautious and less successful.

We were all up right early next morning—two and a half hours before starting time—for we were confidently expecting a fight, but only marched all day along the Vaal, in a westerly direction, towards Christiania. The country was pretty thickly covered with scrub, but the grass was fine and green under foot, for it was just about the end of the rainy season. Early in the forenoon we crossed the border from Bechuanaland into the Transvaal, being the first British troops to invade the South African Republic!

That night we made our camp-fires in hollowed out ant- heaps, and were very pleased with the idea at first; but we soon found that the burned earth or the scorched ants smelt unpleasantly—something like the inside of a Kaffir kraal— so afterwards very seldom used them.

Next day, as we continued our march, we came on many traces of the Boers, who were retiring before us. Striking a road we noticed that a lot of horsemen must have passed along it very recently, and we picked up a few Mauser and Martini cartridges which had dropped from their bandoliers. Then we passed a fire and the remains of a newly killed goat, showing where a Boer outpost had been stationed the night before. About mid-day we came to the top of a rise, four miles from Christiania, and there started a kind of mad race between the 17th, 18th, and 20th Companies to see which could reach the town first. We did not seem to mind who or what we might encounter, for we had hardly time to look ahead, so busy were we sitting our horses, keeping in our extended order, and dodging clumps of scrub and holes. We reached the north corner of the town as the other companies went riding down the main street. The last of the Boers left as we entered it, and our capture consisted of an undefended town, a few goats, and a little ammunition. While we were all huddled together in the streets some of us were nervously expecting a shelling from the hill on the far side of the 'town over which the Boers had disappeared, but our inveterate good luck began to attend us thus early, for they never took time to halt on the hill at all, much less to attack us from it. One of our corporals rendered himself famous by taking two prisoners, whom he brought safely before the captain. One was a little black boy, and the other was an old man blind and lame. In the evening we retraced our steps, and camped near the Vaal, about six miles from Christiania, having had a most lively and exciting day.

After Christiania we trekked north, and joining the railway again at Taungs, pressed on towards Mafeking, camping by the way at Dryharts, Brussels, and Vryburg, where we stayed two days, getting mails and remounts from Kimberley.

The 10th Division, under General Hunter, was made up of two brigades. Barton's, to which we were attached, went round by Christiania; while Hart's pushed straight on up the railway. Being the only mounted troops with Barton, we scoured the country ahead and on the flanks. It was a valuable experience, and we learned much at little cost, for any parties of Boers seen made off at once without showing fight. There must have been something wrong, however, with our mode of training, else we had sooner become adepts at our work. A deal of attention was paid to riding in line. We had not learned to do so mechanically, so could not give our full attention to keeping our eyes about us. Then some people would never be satisfied. A man might be on the advance screen—single files extended to a hundred yards from knee to knee— when he would be told that he was no more use where he was than a sick headache; why was he not taking advantage of some higher ground near by where he could see the country? Next time, under similar circumstances, he might make just such a move, only to be asked why the devil he could not do such a simple thing as keep his distance? Nothing is more disheartening and deadening in its effect than the idea that one can never please no matter what effort is made. So anxious were we to learn, and so keen to make a success of any opportunity we might get, that the very least encouragement would have had a hundred times more effect than the bullying which was so long persisted in. Thus, one of the few things we had to regret was that we were kept back at first, while most of the old army men were unlearning much that their previous training had drilled into their very bones, and could begin to understand the new order of things which prevailed. We were led a pretty dance till they did learn, but I quite believe it did us a lot of good, and our strict, regulation, red-tape methods, some traces of which always stuck to us, redeemed us in the eyes of many an army officer, kept us in their good graces, and helped to prevent us from degenerating into a feckless rabble, like one or two companies we came across.

Many a time the Boers gave us a good scare, making the blood run warm in our veins. Once, when two troops on patrol were at a farm, a party of Boers about equal in number was seen a long way off, but coming in our direction. We got the horses under cover, and all except one or two hid themselves, hoping to tempt the Boers to come on; but though they hung about a bit they would not attack us.

On another occasion, at Gaysdorp, north of Vryburg, we marched out under the late Captain Hodge of the 20th Company, to attack a laager at a farm some distance from the line of march. As we neared the place our excitement ran high in expectation of a fight, and at the critical moment, when we were most keenly on the alert for any sign of the enemy, a shot went off on our left front. Led by Captain Coats, we galloped forward and came on a man amongst the bushes. He was not however a Boer, but one of our own officers who had taken a shot at a buck. The Boers were all gone, leaving only a great litter of old clothes and refuse to show where they had camped. In the afternoon the country through which we passed was as flat as the ocean, and Captain Hodge steered a splendidly straight course to our new camp by compass. As a rule the veldt was undulating and monotonous, and rivers or streams were conspicuous by their absence. The water all gathers in lakes called pans—hence the names of some of our camps, Maribogo Pan, Barbers Pan, etc.

On 4th June we first heard of the fall of Pretoria. It was only a rumour, but was confirmed next day at Lichtenburg. Major Coke came round to our camp fire and read us a telegram containing the news, and chaffed us about getting home in a week or two. It is rather amusing to read our letters written then. The following is an extract from one :-

"Lichtenburg, June 5, 1900.

"You will have been relieved to hear long ere this reaches you that the war is ended. We heard last night officially of Lord Roberts's entry into Pretoria. We understand that we will now proceed to Potchefstroom, four days' march, entrain there for Pretoria, where we may take part in a grand review of troops. Then it will be the train down south and home."

At Lichtenburg we were joined by several companies of the Imperial Light Horse, part of the flying column which had by this time relieved Mafeking, and by the Manchester Yeomanry. We saw also most of the Mafeking heroes and other celebrities—Baden-Powell, Mahon, Maurice Gifford, the Prince of Teck, etc., etc.

Rumour was correct when it said we would go to Potchefstroom, but we did not take four days, nor, need I say it, did we go straight home from there. From Lichtenburg we reached Ventersdorp in one day, and did the remaining forty-five miles in one night march. It was the first of many night marches, and was probably the stiffest We left Ventersdorp at four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, and reached Potchefstroom by noon next day. We halted once for two hours during the night, but got little rest. There was a biting, cold, frosty wind blowing, and though we all had our cloaks, and crouched together behind ant-heaps for shelter, we were thoroughly chilled when it was time to start again. Then the sleepiness, accentuated by the cold, and the monotonous motion of our horses, became acutely painful. One felt one would gladly have given a month's pay to be allowed to lie down and sleep even for five minutes. One fellow was fortunate enough to get a supply of hot coffee about midnight. We passed a Jew's store and hotel, or "winkle" as it is called, and as the front entrance was crowded he went round to the back. There a little nigger boy was making a pot of coffee. He supplied our yeoman with all he could drink, and filled his water bottle; this kept several of us quite lively for an hour or two. I doubt the little nigger would catch it hot for making so free with his master's supper, but he seemed to consider sixpence quite good value for a prospective sore skin. We understood that we were expected to reach Potchefstroom by daybreak, but instead only got as far as Friedrickstad, where we had a scurry after imaginary Boers. How we wearied for the sun to get up and warm our frozen fingers and feet! Then when it did, it got to be far too hot. We always felt the heat most after a night march.

We got a splendid reception at Potchefstroom, both the white and black population turning out in their brawest of braws, quite a number wearing our colours and flying the Union Jack from their stores and houses. A Boer train on the point of leaving the station was captured by the Edinburgh Company, and a lot of rolling stock was found in the railway sheds. De Wet was reported in the vicinity of Potchefstroom, and for two days we were kept busy making trenches, which we occupied at nights.

Several men left us for billets on the Klerksdorp and Johannesburg railway, which was to be opened up at once. One of them, posted at an outlying station, was surrounded by the Boers and taken prisoner while out fishing. He was well treated however, and released in about ten days. Major Coke too, left us here. Since then, till our return home, we heard nothing about him definitely, but rumour had it that he rode into Dc Wet's laager, with one solitary nigger for escort, to try and persuade the Boer leader to surrender. "De Wet, old chappie, why don't you give in, damme?" said Coke but here the curtain falls.

We had now been about a month on the trek, and had come through a rougher time in many respects than fell to our lot afterwards. We have had months of longer, harder trekking, often with almost continuous fighting, and short spells with less to eat, but we never had such a combination of petty annoyances to worry and harass us, To begin with, we generally had to get up in the middle of the night; reveille might be at any time between 12.30 and 3. The mornings were bitterly cold, and our fingers used to get absolutely frozen trying to buckle and strap on all our gear. We still continued the habit of getting up two hours before starting time, but could now spare a minute, and run to the fire to warm our fingers between the stages of saddling-up. We always managed our coffee and biscuit, but it was bolted with our loins girt and our staff in our hand, so to speak. We did not use our tents, never dreaming that we would afterwards think it quite worth while to pitch them every night, and be able to get them down in plenty of time next morning. Then we were always fooled with halts. We seemed always to be told to off-saddle, picket, and begin cooking, when the halt was only to be a temporary one, and were kept on the tenter-hooks standing to our horses for hours when there was no intention to go farther that day. This seems a small matter, but it often meant that we had to tumble out our half-cooked dinner to pack up the dixies, and starve at night; or else sit up till all hours cooking, while the other troops slept. Our food was more than usually monotonous in those days. We had not learned to forage, nor were we sufficiently proficient in the art of cooking to take full advantage of our rations. Some say that people should always rise from a meal hungry; we certainly did at that time. Bread was bought on every possible occasion, the price being from one shilling to two shillings a loaf Butter we got when we could, and I have seen men pay a shilling for the spread of one biscuit. Later we were not always so generous. If the farm people treated us

fairly, we were only too ready to pay; but when they said they had nothing—" nix ni nada "—when they had plenty, or wanted to charge ridiculous prices, it was a curious thing that while the owners were haggling at the door, their eggs, butter, or bread, might be seen flying from the windows, or slipping out at the back door—

"But I'd take my oath, which were Bible truth,
I hadn't seen nothing wrong."

An extra we used to have regularly, consisted of a kind of porridge made of Indian corn meal—mealie-meal we called it. It was a most unsightly-looking mess, but grand warming and filling stuff. Each troop, originally consisting of thirty men, but now reduced to between twenty and twenty- five, did its own cooking and foraged its own wood. This wood gathering was a constant work, for no matter how much we got, we never could carry away any of it on the waggons for next day. We often had to go miles for it, thus delaying our cooking for hours. Then the want of a water-cart was much felt. We had one till we reached Warrenton, but it broke down and was left behind. We often had enormous distances to carry water, and sometimes it was so far away that we could not get it at all. The quality was never up to Loch Katrine standard, but the worst water can be improved by judicious boiling and skimming. Water from wells near the salt pans was often clear and clean looking, but tasted salt, and made the most abominable tea and coffee.

Against all this was the fact that we were keen and enthusiastic, and determined to make the best of everything. Only round our own camp fires did we grumble and growl.

On 14th June, the 19th and 20th Companies were sent off to Klerksdorp, and we did not meet them again for nearly a year. Next day the 17th and 18th Companies were sent out to reconnoitre towards the Vaal River into country we were afterwards to become more familiar with, under the late Colonel Le Gallais.

On the 16th the column marched Out of Potchefstroom towards Krugersdorp. We camped the first night at Welveidiend, and had to go supperless to bed, as it was too late and too wet to cook. Next day by noon we were within seventeen miles of Krugersdorp, and off-saddled, thinking we were halted for the night. But at two o'clock we got an order to turn out at once, and after drawing one day's rations, set off in company with a battery of Royal Horse Artillery, Imperial Light Horse, and the Manchester Yeomanry, for Krugersdorp. It seems word had been brought to headquarters that the Boers were holding a meeting to decide whether resistance should be offered to our advance, and it was thought that our unexpected appearance would help their indecision. It did. We galloped all the way through Randfontein into the town, encountering no resistance whatever. The Artillery came on grandly, doing nearly the whole distance at a fast trot. The Manchesters, to their great disgust, were sent back to camp with some prisoners taken at Randfontein. Immediately on our arrival we were put on guard over some mines.

An interesting ceremony was performed during our stay at Krugersdorp. The Union Jack was hoisted over the Landrost. Some Royal Horse Artillery and field guns, two squadrons of Imperial Light Horse, the Scottish Yeomanry, and two regiments of Infantry paraded on three sides of the town square. General Hart gave the order to present arms as the flag was run up, and General Hunter gave "Three cheers for the Queen," to which we enthusiastically responded.

Large numbers of Boers were coming in to surrender their arms and get passes, requiring quite a staff to receive them and prepare the papers. The yeomanry supplied mounted orderlies. It was a fatigue much sought after, as there were good chances of getting revolvers and bandoliers.

We found the shops in Krugersdorp still fairly well stocked, and lived in clover during our short stay—eating jam every day!

On 22nd June we left Krugersdorp and went on to Johannesburg, stopping overnight by the way, at Florida, the fruit garden of the mining city. To our great disappointment we did not stop at Johannesburg, but just passed through a corner of it, going on and camping about eight miles to the south. We were left-flank baggage guard, and had orders to close in on the waggons while passing through the town. This we did, but many of us then slipped away, rode through the main streets, and had lunch or dinner.

At this camp south of Johannesburg, we parted company with the Imperial Light Horse. They were good enough to express their friendship for us, and we were duly flattered by the regard and esteem of such a distinguished Colonial corps. Their great regret was that they were not going to see us "blooded," as they called getting the first taste of fire.

Next day we continued in a southerly direction, and camped at Reit Spruit Winkle, which we looted. It contained little but Worcester Sauce and sugar. Here Hart's Brigade left us. On 14th July it joined hands with General Clery's force, which had been advancing up the eastern side of the Orange River Colony.

On 25th June our column entered Heidelberg. The convoy we had with us was fourteen miles in length, and since we only marched twelve miles that day the first waggons arrived in town before the last had left the old camp.

General Hunter was now getting ready for the great concerted move in the Orange River Colony which terminated so successfully in the capture of Prinsloo. The force brought together at Heidelberg amounted to about 6000 men. It included Bruce Hamilton's Brigade, to which was attached the 3rd C.LV., Infantry; Ridley's 2nd Mounted Infantry Brigade; Broadwood's 2nd Cavalry Brigade; P Battery Royal Horse Artillery; 81st and 82nd Royal Field Batteries; and two 5-inch guns, called "cow-guns," because they were drawn by teams of thirty oxen.

Four days' marching brought us to the Vaal at Villiersdorp. Our days of trekking in the Transvaal were ended, and so far we had not been called on to fire a shot.

On 1st July, however, when we were holding the bluffs above the drift while the last of the waggons crossed, a few Boer snipers attacked us. On the first alarm a Mounted Infantry outpost was driven in. We saw them come galloping over a rise, first one, then a riderless horse, then two men on one horse. Some bullets began to come over near us, our porn-porn barked, and we sent a few volleys wildly into the sunset. The little action was over—our first and only one in the Transvaal.


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