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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter VII


OUR entry into Flarrismith on 4th August, under General Macdonald, was quite an imposing affair, displaying something of the pomp and circumstance of war—features generally conspicuous by their absence out in South Africa. We all formed up outside the town and marched into the Landrost in fine style, with bagpipes playing and bugles blowing. The 18th Company proudly led the procession, followed by the Highlanders and others. When the flag went up we brought our arms to the "carry," and the pipers played "God Save the Queen." Our reception was most enthusiastic. The British residents, of whom there are many—for Harrismith is known as one of the healthiest towns in South Africa—could not do enough for us. On the day after our arrival half of the people in the town appeared to have come up to see our camp and hear news of the war, and of the world from which they had been so long cut off.

On the 8th of August we were back at Bethlehem, and there Hunter got together a column to pursue Olivier, who, having been in the Harrismith district, was now trekking north. It consisted of three battalions of the Highland Brigade under Macdonald, the 2nd Bedfordshires, Lovat's Scouts, our two companies of Yeomanry, and fifteen guns. We marched Out north-west through Lindley towards Heilbron, and came in touch with the Boers at Witpoort. We had met with no resistance since the day before Prinsloo's surrender at Naauwpoort Nek, and were trekking along quietly within a few miles of our destination when bang went a big gun from a hill on our right front, and a shell dropped into our convoy. The Ayrshires formed the advance screen, and the Boers had allowed some of them to get within seventy-five yards of their position before opening fire. An artillery duel now began. The Boers had four guns on a long hill, and after sending a few shots into the convoy, which was being hurriedly turned off to the left, concentrated their efforts in trying to prevent our artillery from coming into action at effective range. Several times our guns made a dash for a position, only to be driven back to cover by the enemy's accurate shooting. When, after what seemed to us a long delay, two of our guns got to work, the Boers had to keep quiet and shift to new positions. Our company was divided, two troops being support to the screen on the right and two on the left. The latter took no part in the fight, but had a splendid view of it, being able to see the Boers moving about and their guns in action, also the manuvres of the artillery and infantry on our own side. The two troops on the right, however, were in the thick of it. On the first encounter, being in an untenable position, they retreated 200 yards to better cover—and here Captain Coats performed a brave deed, of which but little has been heard. Finding that two men at the far end of the line had not noticed the movement, and were in danger of being cut off by a party of several hundred Boers who were beginning to press a flank attack, he rode back under a heavy fire, hailed one man, and brought the other back at his stirrup leather.

After a long delay, owing to its wheels having been damaged in a veldt fire, our cow-gun came into action, and a feeling of great security and relief possessed our souls as we listened to its sullen roar and the more distant report of its shell bursting. The Boer guns were now almost completely silenced, not being able to fire more than two or three rounds from any one position without drawing on themselves a deadly 'salvo from our horse and field guns, which had been able to press forward to commanding positions. Our Colonel is said to have proposed to General Macdonald to make a flank attack with his mounted men, but he flouted the idea, and sent the Highland Light Infantry to charge the hill, which they did in splendid style, losing, however, four men killed and forty-one wounded. Little or no damage was done to the Boers, unless, perhaps, one or two shells took effect, and they simply trekked off unhindered as soon as the Highland Light Infantry got uncomfortably near. The Boers whom
we encountered that day were the 1800 who had escaped under Olivier from the Bethlehem hills.

We remained at Heilbron five days, but got little rest, being kept busy with patrols and grazing guards over the mules and cattle. Once we were sent out on a night march owing to information brought to headquarters by some of Lovat's Scouts. They had discovered a laager about sixteen miles from Heilbron, and a strong patrol was despatched to surround and attack it at dawn. It consisted of the 17th and 18th Companies of Yeomanry, a company of Australian Bushmen, and Lovat's Scouts. But the Boers must have heard of our approach and decamped.

Here, at last, we got a new outfit. Boots and breeches were very badly needed. Several of us were practically barefooted, there being large holes in the soles of our boots. It was most painful walking on the stiff grass, and in the mornings with the hoar frost it was excruciating. Besides boots and breeches, we were supplied with fatigue trousers, tunics, putties, jackets called "British warms," shirts, and socks.. 'While in the midst of getting fitted out we were ordered off to Kroonstad, and left the same afternoon.

On 24th August—a wet and chilling day—we reached Kroonstad. All our thoughts were of home, for we had heard that Prinsloo's surrender had practically brought the war to an end in the Orange Colony, and, of course, rumours about our early release from service were plentiful. But there was no intention to part with us yet awhile. We got remounts that same afternoon, and on the 26th were put on board a train and run up and down the line for a day or two, finally being let Out at Ventersburg Road, where our waggons joined us. The train journey was not devoid of interest. It was the first of many such trips, travelling beside all our gear in open trucks. We reached Winburg in the dark, and heard that it had been attacked that morning by Olivier, but we had no sooner watered our horses at the station than we were ordered on board the train again and hurried away. It is believed that Olivier, hearing of several trains leaving that night, thought the place was evacuated, and rode in next morning so carelessly that he was captured with his three sons.

From Ventersburg Road, where we finally left the train, we marched six miles to the town of Ventersburg, and there had our first proper experience of South African wet weather. The rain started at dawn the day after our arrival, when half the company were Out on picket, so these got wet to begin with, blankets and all. It continued all day, more or less, and at night reached a climax. Mud and water were two or three inches• deep all over the veldt, and the trenches round the tents, perhaps not very scientifically constructed, proved quite useless. We understood this kind of weather was sure to last three or four days, and each man was busy trying to make up his mind to it in his own way. We could only pile our kits round the poles of the tents and sit on them in a kind of helpless stupor. We wondered what we would be like by the third or fourth day, and began to feel imaginary twinges of rheumatism. These dreadful forebodings made us a bit snappy, as we sat nursing our knees in a cloud of tobacco smoke. In our tent we resented the entrance of two men who had been out on patrol and came in dripping. They made a nasty cold air, and we had to move to make room for them. It was endurable sitting still, but a move meant that we came against all sorts of cold wet bits of our clothes that had not got warmed by actual contact with our skin. Then some irrepressibles in another tent would sing. We could not see anything to sing about, though perhaps we could have endured a funeral march if it had been our own. Eventually the good-natured man was flattered into going out and starting a complex and intricate drainage scheme. We from the inside gave directions, and as the result of our combined efforts all the surface water disappeared from the floor of the tent Without more ado we lay down and slept. In about two hours I was disturbed. Somehow I was on a boat at sea The wind was raging through the spars and rigging. The sails were flapping noisily, one was hitting me on the face, and I was wet with spray. Shadowy figures crowded round the mast, when a voice shouted, The pegs are all up! Who's going out to drive them in?" Then I woke up and seized the fly of the tent, all wet and muddy, which was flapping in my face. A perfect gale was blowing, and the figures I had seen were men holding up the pole. For full five minutes there was a deadlock. Everyone was holding something important, and no one could go out. But fortunately it was noticed that the good-natured man was only holding his breath, so we punctured him, and he went out and fixed all the guys. We were more fortunate than some whose tents collapsed entirely. The Captain's indeed, was blown away altogether, and could not be found till morning. Contrary to our dismal forebodings, next day broke fine, and as we did not move till the afternoon we got all our stuff comfortably dried.

We only marched back to the Station again, whence after waiting a day, we took train to Bloemfontein.


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