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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter XII

ON our arrival in Bloemfontein we were greatly delighted to receive our Christmas and New-Year mails. Many of the parcels contained such almost forgotten luxuries as bun, shortbread, and plum-pudding, and we all felt like settling down to have a right good feast. Out on the veldt, both Christmas and New-Year's Day had been rather dreary and dry, so we determined to make up for it in one great festival that night. A varied menu was prepared of sweets and indigestibles, but we faced up to it as only men with keen veldt appetites and unimpeachable digestions could do. We had, however, hardly got the length of the toasts, speeches, and songs, when orders arrived for us to proceed at once to the station, where a train was awaiting us. The scene quickly changed from mild revelry to one of bustle and hurry, as we set to work to pack up, strike tents, and saddle horses; but withal we were cheerful, and even merry, for we had by that time become so used to be hustled and knocked about that irritation was seldom more than a momentary sensation. It was a fine moonlight night, but we took a while to get ready; our kits had all been opened out and disarranged, our blankets were spread down for sleeping, and inside the tents was the usual mail-day litter of letters, papers, and clothing, which, in our hurry, we hardly knew how to stow away. Chocolates, biscuits, and cakes, which we had hoped to be able to spread over several days, had to be eaten at once if at all possible, for we could not carry much on with us. But everything was ready by eleven o'clock, and we started for the station. We soon found, however, that progress was impossible, for the streets of the town were all full of Colonel Crewe's transport waggons. After some little delay we were ordered to bivouac for the night, so tying our horses to garden palings, and searching about for comfortable corners to sleep in, we were soon scattered up and down side streets, in gardens, and on verandahs.

At two a.m. word came that the way was clear, and after a lot of hunting around to find everybody, we proceeded to the station. It was daybreak before all the horses were entrained, kits and equipment put aboard, and we had done quarreling about who were to occupy the different trucks. Altogether, it was rather a memorable night.

A railway journey in an open truck is always a trying experience, and this one was no exception; we were all tired, but hardly dared sleep, exposed as we were to the full glare of the sun. We never felt the heat so much while riding or moving about, but often had to put up shelters with horse blankets and rifles when we halted in the middle of the day. So in the trucks we simply lay about and sweltered. Our destination was Bethulie, and we made the trip in a day and a night.

Arrived there, we remained encamped for four days. The Boers were moving about on the north side of the river, seeking. for a place to get across, and columns under Bruce Hamilton and other generals were watching them. We, to use Pilcher's expression, were "Long Stop." Bethulie is a pretty little town, and we enjoyed our rest immensely, visiting all the shops, though there was hardly anything in them, and buying grapes, peaches, and figs from the gardens. Reveille was actually as late as six o'clock, and we could hardly have wished it later, going to bed as we did at eight or nine at night. It was a very dusty place, and one evening there was a big wind-storm, which blew the sand about till we could hardly breathe. It was sand in one's mouth and sand in one's eyes and heaps of sand in one's tea, till the rain came on and laid it. As usual it was not content with a mere shower, but gave us another night of canal constructing and fighting the wind to keep our tents up.

On 8th and 9th February we made short marches in the direction of Springfontein, which we reached early on the 10th. In the afternoon the column proceeded eight miles in a westerly direction, and we were left at a kopje, two miles from camp, with a signalling corps. It was, as usual, a fine clear evening, and the view from the hill was magnificent— rounded kopjes, of all shapes and sizes, alternating with narrow belts of flat veldt, stretched away seemingly for thirty or forty miles. It looked like a toy world, for the sun was low, and the shadows made the hills stand out exactly as they do in coloured bird's-eye maps.

De Wet was now known to be in front of us hurrying southeast to the drifts below Philippolis, but it was thought they were all held and that he would be caught in a corner. Next day our column commenced trekking in earnest, going through Philippolis to Fouriesfontein, thirty-five miles. We were on the flanks, and did over forty miles up and down kopjes—a trying day for the horses, for the ground was particularly rough and stony. Next morning it was reported that the Boers were into Cape Colony, having found an open passage at a ford, little known, near Zand Drift. The column hurried down to it, and started to cross. For the troops and artillery it was all right; the water was not over five feet deep, and though the smaller horses had to swim a part of the way, when we cocked our legs up over the wallets in front only the seat of our breeches got wet. With the waggons it was a different matter. When the mules got out of their depth they became excited and nervous, and at the least hitch would begin struggling and kicking till, getting entangled with the harness, they were unable to keep their heads above water. There was then nothing for it but to cut the traces and drag the whole team ashore as quickly as possible. At one time as many as seven waggons were thus left stuck in the water, where they settled down so deeply in the sand that eventually it took from fifteen to twenty span of oxen to drag them out. Each company naturally took a particular interest in its own transport, and after camp was formed a lot of us went down to help ours to get over. Double teams were yoked in each waggon, naked niggers rode the leaders; some of us on horseback, but dressed only in our shirts, led each mule by a halter, and others rode alongside to encourage us; all had whips or sticks, and all were shouting at the top of their voices. The waggons, thus escorted, sailed over grandly. Pilcher, watching the performance, was in ecstasies. At one time he asked for a volunteer to swim out and cut away the harness from a team of ten drowning mules which was being carried down the river. Two of our company went out and saved nine at some risk to themselves, for the mass of struggling, kicking mules was, to say the least of it, rather awkward to deal with.

By the next afternoon the convoy was all over, and we marched eight miles before dark. On the following day, i4th February, we trekked twenty-five miles, and halted near Philipstown. On the i 5th, after a very long days we reached the railway at Hout Kraal, about seventeen miles north of De Aar. Here we heard that De Wet had been having a bad time ever since he entered the colony. Trying to force his way south-east he had been met by several columns, and been forced to fight every day. Disgusted, he made a bolt east, but when crossing the railway a mile or two north of Hout Kraal, he was pluckily attacked by the garrison under Colonel Crabbe, and an armoured train, and lost several waggon loads of ammunition and a galloping Maxim. Plumer was hard on his heels, and we were only a day behind.

While at Hout Kraal, a most amusing affair happened, which resulted in the place being re-christened " Rumfontein, " at least by all in our column. Arriving in the dark after our thirty-four miles march, fatigue parties were sent from all the units to draw forage and rations from the Army Service Corps depot. The stores were in charge of two civilians, new hands at the work, and absolute laxity prevailed. The stuff was not enclosed or protected in any way, and no sentries were posted, so Atkins did not take long to see that here was a chance such as he never had before in all his life. Bags of sugar, and cases of jam and rum disappeared in a twinkling, a fair share of the loot finding its way to our lines. A noisy night was the result. But the Yeomanry can, if they like, be proud of the fact that they could all ride their horses next day, which is more than can be said for some of the other troops. An enquiry was set afoot to trace the offenders, but General Knox is said to have quashed it, saying that it was entirely the fault of the Army Service Corps, and that hungry, hard-worked troops could not have been expected to behave differently in such circumstances.

On the 16th, having to wait for our waggons, we only marched fifteen miles, but next day we got into our stride again, and covered thirty. On the 18th we left our convoy behind, with the exception of a few Cape-carts, and marched thirty-five miles. At mid-day we were told that the day's ration we had drawn the night before would have to do us till the following evening. Most of us had only one biscuit left out of the four, and the whole ration of bully beef was on a Cape-cart we had left behind. Next day we again marched thirty-five miles on rather empty stomachs; and on the 20th arrived at Clip Drift, on the Brak River, where we were served with half rations. The horses were in a pitiable condition. There was no grass to be had, and they had been doing these long marches on two or three pounds of oats per day. Hundreds had fallen out starved and exhausted, and as we had orders to shoot all that had to be left, the road behind us was lined with their carcases. That the Boers and Plumer's column were in as bad a plight, or worse, we knew, for, following in their tracks, we passed hundreds and hundreds of used-up animals standing just where they had been abandoned, with hardly enough energy left to flick off the flies. Our move to the Brak River was to prevent the Boers from doubling south. The Orange River was now more strongly held, and Knox's orders were to drive them against it. Plumer had been forced to give up the chase and go in to Hopetown to recruit and refit. On the 2 ist we crossed Clip Drift, and hurried to another one farther down the river by which the Boers could have crossed, but they had gone north again. Here a small convoy turned up from Prieska with oats and biscuits, and a few remounts. Next day we returned to Clip Drift and proceeded northwards after the Boers, twenty-five miles. During the two following days we marched forty-two miles towards Hopetown, stopping every now and then wherever a bite of grass was to be had for the horses. A third of the men were now walking. On the 25th we had a short march to Hopetowri. The 18th Company were advance screen, and quite near the town rather a startling incident occurred. Two men on the left flank galloped right into a party of thirty-five Boers with two Cape-carts, hidden in a little pan or round depression. Being told to "Hands up," they wheeled and galloped off just as the next pair on the screen appeared on the edge of the pan on the other side. These two also turned and got away. One went to hurry forward the supports, for the Boers themselves seemed surprised and were making off, while the other, a corporal on a fresh horse—one of the Prieska remounts—hung on to them for a mile or two, eventually capturing a Cape-cart with two men in it, which could not keep up with the rest. Had our fellows had their field-glasses, or had the support come up smartly, all the Boers might have been caught, but as a matter of fact our horses were too much done up. It was thought remarkable that the Boers did not fire on our men when they rode up to them, but we caught two of them a few days later who told us that they had known that they were in a tight corner and wanted to get away without attracting attention. Commandant Hertzog was with them, so it would have been a valuable capture. The corporal was highly commended by Knox and Pilcher for his pluck and coolness in getting hold of the Cape-cart

A great many of us by this time were without field-glasses. Either they had been lost or stolen, or burnt in the great veldt fire, and we had had no opportunity to procure more. Our experience was that in South Africa no soldier should be without either a pair of good field-glasses or a telescope.

A very poor bedraggled lot we were as we marched into Hopetown. Out of about 1200 men in the column 500 had lost their horses and were walking; and never before had we thought that a rest was so well deserved. But instead of that there was a night march before us. The Yeomanry somehow had lost hardly any of their horses. So, a patrol being required to go and destroy a ferry-boat) thirty miles down the Orange River, Pilcher asked Major Campbell if he would take his men and go. We left at nine o'clock that night, seventy-five of us from the two companies, two signallers, and a Maxim gun-team with gun, carrying two days' provisions, and 200 rounds of ammunition per man. We plodded on wearily for seven hours, then lay down and slept for an hour and a half. By six o'clock we were on the road again, and marched till ten, when we reached the place where the ferry had been reported, only to learn that it was at a drift twelve miles farther on. We off-saddled then to rest for a couple of hours and have breakfast, but were soon disturbed by a report that Boers had been seen in the scrub by the riverside. Major Campbell took about half of us down and we captured six; a mounted patrol caught other four; and the ten were sent back, under an escort of four, to a point which a supporting column of M. I. under Colonel Taylor was expected to reach that night. On the way the escort captured two more, who rode up to them unsuspectingly, deceived by the relative numbers into thinking it was a Boer patrol with British prisoners.

The rest of us pushing on neared Calk Drift—where the boat was reported bout half-past two. Having received information by the way that ˇoo Boers were crossing the drift, we galloped on and took up positions on the bluffs overlooking the river, getting into action at once. It was soon found that very few Boers were on our side of the river, but that there were from three to four hundred on the opposite bank. These, though at first completely taken by surprise, turned to and gave us a stiff fight when they found that we had no artillery with us. Both sides had excellent cover, and most of the shooting was at four to six hundred yards range, but the Boers had almost the best of it, for they had just to lie still and wait till we showed ourselves. Determining not to allow the Boers on the south bank to escape, Major Campbell led a patrol down past the drift, and started to beat back through the bush beside the river. Lieutenant Marshall with a few men was sent farther down. About twenty of our company held a commanding position above the drift whence we could see all that was going on. We had the Maxim beside us, but it jammed after firing three shots, and the Ayr sergeant-major, an excellent fellow, and one of the best types of an army man, was severely wounded while lying beside it.

Meanwhile Major Campbell, working up towards the drift, had taken a dozen or fourteen prisoners and secured a lot of horses. But there was great difficulty in getting them brought round to the main position at the back of the bluff Late in the afternoon he had them all among some trees back from the river, and in front of him was a piece of open ground, sheltered from the Boer fire, but in full view from our hill. Suspecting that we would take any men coming from the trees for Boers trying to turn the position, Campbell kept the Yeomanry under cover, and sent the prisoners out. We saw at once that they were Boers and commenced shooting at them, but when they began running about waving coats and hats, we noticed that they were unarmed, and immediately ceased fire. Campbell and his men then came out and herded them round to our hill.

During all this time, the boat lay moored at the other side of the river, and the question was how were we to get it over? The swollen river was obstacle enough in itself, but with hundreds of Boors on the opposite bank it seemed an impossible task. Nothing could be attempted that night, so we posted pickets and waited for the morrow. What we most had to fear was an attack from some other commando which might be on its way down to cross the drift. But the night passed without any disturbance, and when morning broke, even the Boers on the other side seemed to have taken their departure. After breakfast, Major Campbell asked for six men to swim across and bring the boat back or destroy it on the other side. Five from our company and one from the 17th volunteered. Just when we were starting, and were eagerly scanning the other bank to try and be sure that all was right, a few shots were heard. "There they are already," shouted Campbell, and we all made for the bushes. But someone cried that it was only our Maxim, now repaired, having a trial shot, so we returned and started off at once. The river was 250 to 300 yards wide, and we were carried a long way down in the crossing. We all had enough to do looking after ourselves while in the water, but when five of us had got safely over, and had looked around, the sixth man was nowhere to be seen. We thought he must have been swept away by the current and drowned. Absolutely defenceless —naked and unarmed—we were in dread lest the Boers should come down on us, and started to haul the boat up stream in the quieter water close to the bank, in order to strike the landing place on the opposite side. Occasional shots were being fired, we did not know by whom, and our comrades on the other side added to our nervousness by constant shouting about something or other; but we could not hear properly for the rush of the river. Our attention was at length attracted by their waving and pointing, and then we noticed a man in difficulties in the water, being carried quickly down stream. Jumping into the boat we turned her nose into the current, and soon were over. The drowning man, however, was dragged ashore unconscious, before we could reach him, having had a narrow escape. He was another fellow who had attempted to come after us, when the Ayr man was swept away.

We were beginning to break up the boat when our missing comrade turned up on the other side of the river. He had been carried far down by the current, and just managed to catch hold of a branch of an overhanging tree and pull himself ashore. Naturally, after his unpleasant experience he would not trust himself to swim back, so we went across for him with the boat. This time we searched the bank, which was littered with Boer kits, saddles, and blankets. Using the blankets to protect our shoulders from the sun we followed the tracks of a Cape-cart, and discovered it behind some bushes. It contained among other things, four rifles, a revolver, and some ammunition. Finally, laden with spoil, we took the boat back and burned it.

We started on our return journey to Hopetown about one o'clock in the afternoon, and felt very elated at our successful exploit. The prisoners were all mounted on horses of a kind, and a sorry lot they looked. A thorough wetting at night rather damped our ardour, and caused the Boers, who had no blankets, to sing hymns, but the sight of our little force marching into Hopetown next day, escorting our forty- one prisoners, sent our spirits up again.

Pilcher expressed himself as delighted with the results of the expedition, and sent up the names of those who swam the river for mention in despatches. Our friends the M.I. and the men of "U" Battery, showing no jealousy, greeted us with shouts of "Good Old Yeomanry!" as we passed through their lines to our camp. It is always a pleasure to record any incident showing the thorough good-fellowship existing between ourselves and the regulars, for at home we hear that the feeling in the army has often been rather against us, especially since the pay of the Yeomanry was increased.

On 1st March we moved to the railway at Orange River Station, where we had two days' rest, and enjoyed grand bathing in the river. On the 4th we crossed into Bechuanaland by the railway bridge, and trekked steadily for Bloemfontein, which we reached on the 12th, doing an average of twenty miles a day.

No very serious opposition was offered to us on the march, but on the 8th a small patrol, consisting of a captain and twenty men, met with a serious disaster. They had gone out early in advance of the column, and not having returned by mid-day as expected, Pilcher sent sixty of us under Major Campbell to look for them. Proceeding cautiously some six or seven miles we halted at a farm, having seen plenty of Boers hanging about on the sky-line, but no trace of the missing patrol. While we were looting the farm, which had been deserted by the occupants on our approach, an observation post reported that some men were coming over towards the farm on foot. It was thought likely to be some ruse on the part of the Boers, and we were ordered under cover of the garden walls to await developments. It was soon seen however, that they were some of the men we were looking for. Crossing a spruit they had run into an ambush, and were captured after losing nine in killed and wounded. The Boers of course kept their horses, rifles, and bandoliers, and stripped them besides, of money, watches, and field-glasses. Some tunics and hats even were taken, and the Captain's shoulder-straps with his stars were torn off. We were not molested on the .way back to camp. Doctor Naismith visited the scene of the disaster to tend the more seriously wounded, who had just been left lying where they had fallen.

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