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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter XI

THERE was now no need to wear our clothes to rags. As a rule, when the column halted for two or three days at a railway town, we could get a new outfit; and, for reasons other than simply to provide against wear and tear, it was advisable to indent for one as often as possible. On this occasion we remained at Winburg four days, and received, besides the army clothes, a welcome present of pipes, pouches, tobacco, and cigarettes, sent by our Captain's people. Indeed we have them and him to thank for keeping us in tobacco almost all the time, for it was often one of the hardest things to get out there—it and matches.

The second day at Winburg was a Sunday, and after service Pilcher made a speech. He told us all the recent war news, and explained the object and result of our past month's work. It was the first of many such talks with us, and so much were they appreciated, that we used to attend church quite regularly thereafter on the chance that he might have something to tell us. Nothing tends more to make troops careless and stale than trekking about here and there, with constant and severe calls on their patience and endurance in the shape of forced marches and night marches, without the satisfaction of knowing what it is all about. Were it only known how much keener and more interested we all became even when only the result of our movements was explained to us, Colonel Pilcher's plan would be more widely adopted. After his speech, Pilcher dismissed the Artillerymen and M. I., and gave us Yeomen a few words to ourselves. He said he knew we were all anxious to get home, and that to many it was a serious matter having had to stay out so long; but he was afraid he could hold out very little hope that we would be allowed to leave the country for several months yet. He said he had watched us closely since we came under his command, and now wished to thank us for the good work we had done. He pronounced our scouting to be thorough and reliable, and reminded us that on more than one occasion he had sent to thank us, through Major Campbell, for a specially hard day's work. We naturally were very delighted, and went back to our tents more pleased than ever with our new commander.

On the 17th and 18th we marched south-east to Allan- dale, near the Korannaberg, whence the Yeomanry went on patrol to Mequatling's Nek, where the Boers were said to be in force; but we did not encounter any. The country thereabouts is exceptionally fine, the principal features being high flat-topped mountains, rising sheer and precipitous from beautiful grassy plains, the dark, rugged crags forming a pleasing contrast to the green turf in the foreground and to the blue sky overhead. From Allandale we turned northwards again towards Winburg, and on the second day had a smart little encounter with the enemy at Trommel, typical of much of our fighting, and illustrative of our methods of breaking down the resistance offered by these small guerilla bands. We were trekking by just such a flat-topped hill as I have described, and the right flank guard was close in under it, when firing commenced away forward where the screen was beginning to turn the end of the hill. In a few seconds our porn-porn, which was with the advance guard, had begun to drop shells all up and down the shoulder from which the Boers were firing. Almost simultaneously a great fusilade started from Boers on the crest of the hill, and bullets were seen dropping fast and thick among the flankers. Scattering a little, they turned, and got away out of range. Then, intending to try and get up from behind, they galloped back along the valley, and disappeared round the end of the hill. Meanwhile, before the Boers could have had time to empty more than one clip from their Mausers, the guns had unlimbered, shells were bursting over the crest, and reinforcements had been sent forward to help the advance guard to break down the resistance there and be able to co-operate at the same time with the force that had gone round the other side of the hill. We were beside the guns, and, watching the movements as spectators, could not but admire the smartness with which the right thing was done without the loss of a moment, for the action, such as it was, worked out like a pre-arranged sham fight. But, smart as our men were, the Boers got off, leaving only two prisoners and a wounded man in our hands. Our casualties were nil.

We pitched our tents that afternoon where we had halted when the firing began, and in the evening got orders for a night march. The hundred and fifty Boers under Haasabrook who had attacked us during the day were reported in laager at the head of a valley below Leeuw Kop, and at two am. we set out to surprise them. A small party had been despatched two hours earlier to go round and occupy quietly the far end of the valley. Till we got to within three miles of the laager all went well. The advance party had already gained their position when one of them by mistake let off his rifle. The Boers, alarmed by the shot, saddled their horses and made off, and all that was to be seen when we got forward was the flash of their horses' shoes in the distance. It must be maddening to have one's carefully-laid plans spoiled by such a simple accident, but it seems to be always the case that, sure as a critical moment arrives, some one or other is ready to fire off his rifle or do something else equally stupid.

On 23rd January we were back near Winburg, and there heard the sad news of the death of our Queen.
A lot of natives were now attached to our column to collect horses from the country-side, and drive them along with us till a town should be reached. In the week's trek to Allandale and back they collected over two thousand, and these were now sent into Winburg under an escort. An empty convoy was also despatched for supplies, and in the afternoon we all turned out to meet it returning, for the country was full of Boers. Two troops, under Lieutenant Marshall, with Major Gale, the Intelligence Officer, had a smart brush with a rather large number of the enemy. One of our men had his horse shot, and at least one Boer was wounded.

From the 25th till the 27th we lay at a camp near Senekal watching the movements of the Boers, who were known to be gathering in large numbers in the Doornberg Mountains, preparatory to attempting another invasion of Cape Colony. We were only one of many columns posted round the Doornberg, and our patrols were Out day and night to keep an eye on the Boers and checkmate any big move. Once, when we were reconnoitring some seven miles out, an observation post above the camp reported that we were being attacked by hundreds of the enemy. Knox and Pilcher turned out with the guns and all available men to our rescue, for, sure enough, large masses of mounted men could be seen galloping about, as the Boers do, over in the direction that we had taken. An orderly, however, relieved matters by looking through the big stand telescope, and pronouncing them to be only herds of buck and gnu!

On the morning of the 28th we learned that 3000 to 4000 Boers had broken through the cordon during the night, and were marching south. So camp was immediately struck, and we hurried off in pursuit of them. Halting about six o'clock in the evening, we were allowed to light fires and cook supper, but were ordered to be in readiness to march on again at nine o'clock. It was a fine, balmy night, and we made good progress till one a.m., when we halted and slept for three hours, and pushed on again at daybreak. In about an hour we arrived at a drift in a deep, wild valley, and crossing it, had just ascended the other side, past Welcome Farm, when firing commenced in front, and we knew we had made up on the Boers. Our appearance was certainly a surprise to them. They must have been misled by our night march, else they never would have allowed us up out of the valley. The guns at once took up a position on Welcome Kop—a hill in the Tobaksberg range —and started firing; and then it was our turn to be surprised, for the Boers replied with two guns, which, from shells picked up afterwards, were seen to be one of our 15-pounders and a Krupp. It had been rumoured that they had unearthed some big guns, but it was a shock to us all the same, for we had not been under shell fire since Bothaville. The first few shells were directed at our waggons, still struggling up from the drift; and it was a sight to see the whole convoy come up that hill at six miles an hour, while a minute before it had seemed doubtful whether it could crawl up at two. One shell passed through a Cape-cart, touching the driver on the side, but doing him no harm. We were lying behind the guns awaiting orders, and, with the artillerymen, were the next to come in for a nasty half-hour; for when the convoy got Out of sight behind a hill, the Boer gunners directed their attention to our battery, and we got all the shells that were overshot. Just as it was most cheering and heartsome to hear our artillery come into action, so was it one of the most trying and demoralising moments when the enemy's guns started. The sound of our own guns, to which we were accustomed —the bang as one was fired—the long, shrill whistle of the shell dying away into the distance—and then, after a pause, the noise of the explosion—only filled us with pleasant speculations as to how uncomfortable the Boers would be feeling, and how soon they would run away. But when the shells were coming towards us, the three sounds were rushed into one. It was bang! then a short, sharp shriek increasing in intensity—and bang! again when the shell burst— leaving little time for mild speculations and no room for pleasant ones.

The M.I. meanwhile were feeling their way out in all directions, and by-and-by most of our guns went forward to another hill. In the afternoon the fight was stiffest round the howitzers and the porn-porn, which had advanced farthest. The enemy were in great numbers, and attacked so resolutely that our men could hardly show themselves to fire a shot. The Boers got to within 1000 yards of the howitzers, and even nearer the porn-porn; but the gunners stuck splendidly to their work. It seemed to us no one could face our lyddite shells, fragments of which were coming back near the gunners, at such short range were they fired. But after every discharge a volley from the Boers would reply, as much as to say, You see we are alive yet." The officer of the porn-porn behaved splendidly. His gun was at the ruins of a corral, and though often driven to leave it and take cover, he would watch his chance, and, making a rush, fire off a dozen shots almost before the Boers could think to reply. The Boer artillery made but a poor show. They could not time their shells properly, and a great many did not burst at all. Their rifle fire, however, cost us dear in killed and wounded, for, seemingly encouraged by their numbers, they fought with much greater bravery than usual. In the evening the M. I. seized one end of a kopje about a mile and a half to the left of our main position, and we were sent to hold it for the night. The Boers retired off the hill after dark, but a few snipers in a donga kept us lively at supper time by shooting at our camp fire. Colonel Crewe, with a small Colonial column, had been fighting successfully all day a few miles on our left, but at dusk he met with a disaster. A large force of Boers ambushed and captured his porn-porn, killing and wounding a number of his men.

Next day we followed the Boers down towards Thaba N'chu, and in the evening, from a hill near which the column halted, we saw a thousand or two of them with a large convoy trekking away in the distance. But instead of continuing the pursuit, General Knox got orders to bring in his column to Bloemfontein, there to entrain for the south, and thus get ahead of the Boers again on the borders of Cape Colony.

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