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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter X

WE were now to commence the final term of our service in South Africa—a long six months of trekking with one of General Knox's columns in the Orange River Colony. But the conditions were very different from what they had been, time having worked a gradual change for the better. The two companies had now only Volunteer officers left, and we rubbed along with them most comfortably. They gave orders when required, which were absolutely and cheerfully obeyed, and they left us pretty much to ourselves at other times. There was an absence of worry, nagging, and unnecessary hardship and restraint. So, released from our earlier condition of almost constant strain and tension, we could take some pleasure in our hard, healthy, open-air life, our rides in the fresh exhilarating mornings, and jolly evenings in the tents or round the camp fires, often enter- taming visitors from among the regulars, with whom we were on the best of terms. On our luck and success we had built up a good healthy Scotch conceit of ourselves, which served for esprit de corps, and, thanks to Colonel Pilcher, our new commander, we were flattered into taking a greater interest in our work than ever.

After Le Gallais's death we were allowed ten days' rest at Kroonstad, the first and only rest in our year's trekking, for though we had often been a few days at a railway town, it was only to refit, and we were then generally kept on the hop with fatigues. During this holiday Colonel Pilcher was appointed to our brigade, and we thought he soon began to take rather a fancy to the Yeomanry. He certainly treated us splendidly all along, keeping us under his own special direction, and giving us our full share of the best and most interesting work in the column.

General Knox had usually charge of three columns, and seemed to prefer to trek with Pilcher. It was grand to see the two men together in a fight—Knox calm and imperturbable, but keenly alert and noticing, seeming to diffuse around him a spirit of order and tranquillity; Pilcher excited, enthusiastic, and full of energy, rattling out orders to his staff, and encouraging us all by flattery and fair words.

In the matter of food, too, a great improvement had taken Place. Provisions and forage were to be had almost anywhere on the railway, so we could get our stores replenished much more easily. Long experience had taught us to appreciate the army biscuit, and we much preferred it to bread when on the trek. Flour, of course, was a terrible nuisance, though the regulars seemed rather to like it. We found it bad enough to cook our own dinner after a march, but to have to bake our bread as well was too much. When the clearing of the country began we were constantly at farms removing families and destroying grain, so we had a chance to get all kinds of extras, such as butter, eggs, hens, turkeys, vegetables, and pigs.

Lieutenant Donaldson and all the men from the detail camp rejoined us before we went on the trek again, so our numbers were just about doubled.

Our rest at Kroonstad came to an end all too soon, and on 20th November we packed ourselves with our belongings into trucks, and after two and a half days on the railway detrained at Edenburg.

De Wet, who since Bothaville had been gathering together a force for the purpose of attacking Cape Colony, had trekked down from Lindley to Dewetsdorp, with from 2000 to 3000 men, and forced the garrison there to surrender while we were still at the railway. General Knox, with three columns, was ordered to prevent the intended invasion, and on the 25th, with Herbert and Barker on our left, we moved out in the direction of Dewetsdorp. On the following day we passed through Reddersburg and turned south-east towards Helvetia, while the other columns went straight on. About noon our screen came in touch with the enemy guarding the rear of a convoy, and guns and men were galloped forward to the attack. The Yeomanry seized a rocky, scrub-covered hill about i000 yards from the low ridge held by the Boers, and were supported by a Maxim gun belonging to the M. I., "U" Battery unlimbered beside us, while the bulk of the M. I. spread out on the right flank. The firing for a time was very hot, and several casualties occurred. One man beside the Maxim was wounded, and the sergeant working it was shot through the head. A few shells from a Boer gun were directed at our artillery and at the led horses, but no damage was done by them. Gradually the Boer fire slackened, and our attack was pressed. Then the Boers mounted and cleared off in the direction taken by their waggons, and we continued almost unmolested towards Helvetia, where we camped. The British losses in the fight were seven killed and wounded.

It was Knox's plan to send one column south to keep in advance of the Boers and block them should a suitable opportunity present itself, while he with the other two columns pressed them on the rear. Colonel Pilcher was therefore sent away south through Smithfield to Bethulie, and on to within a few miles of Springfontein, whence we felt our way up again to meet the Boers, who had not moved so fast. On the evening of 3rd December we sighted seven or eight hundred Boers, with a large convoy, who had turned and were hurrying north again, but Pilcher was not strong enough to do more than make a demonstration to head them off. While we were still engaged with them night fell, and it began to rain. As soon as it was dark the Boers, unknown to us, doubled south again, and all that wet and stormy night were struggling towards the Orange River. Next morning the three British columns were at a standstill. The Boers with whom they had all been in touch had disappeared, and the day was lost looking for them. We only trekked a little back and forwards in the rain, and halted quite close to our old camp. Meanwhile the Boers had reached Karreepoort Drift, on the Caledon River, after twenty-seven consecutive hours' marching. On the 5th Knox crossed after them, while we were sent round to enter Cape Colony by Bethulie Bridge in order to get ahead of the Boers again. The weather that day was, if possible, worse than before, and the roads were so soft and heavy that we had to leave our waggons and push on with- Out them. In the evening we were forced to halt at Slik Spruit, on the Slik River, eight miles from Bethulie. The river was in flood and impassable, and we spent a miserable night—wet, cold, and hungry, for blankets and provisions were all miles behind. Next morning the river had fallen, so we continued our way to Bethulie. There we halted several hours while some provisional transport was got together for us, and in the afternoon we marched ten miles into Cape Colony, heading for Odendaal Drift. On the 8th, when De Wet was at Smithfield—having doubled back across the Caledon—we reached Aliwal North, and waited till our waggons came up.

The next fourteen days were spent rather uneventfully trekking up the eastern side of the Orange River Colony, through Rouxville, Smithfield, Helvetia, Moddepoort, and Clocolan, to Peru farm, a point about midway between Ladybrand and Ficksburg. No Boers were seen till we reached Clocolan, where some resistance was offered, and a M.I. patrol was attacked. But the enemy were soon driven off, leaving behind them one killed and one wounded.

One day a fine, well-set-up-looking German came into camp with a flag of truce to see what terms of surrender he could get for himself and some companions. He had the effrontery to complain of the British using soft-nosed bullets. Of course, we never got served with any but the usual clean nickel variety, while the Boers themselves were using all kinds—flat-nosed, hollow-nosed, and, worst of all, explosive bullets fired either from Martinis or elephant express rifles. We do not speak from hearsay on this matter, for many of us have experienced the uncomfortable sensation of knowing that some disreputable Boor was firing these dastardly bullets at ourselves in particular.

On the 24th December we went out from Peru farm with a patrol of 400, and three guns, to turn a commando reported to be trekking towards Ficksburg. About four miles from camp we came in touch with its scouts, and a running fight ensued. By shell and rifle fire the Boors were driven from two successive positions in little over an hour. Retiring back a mile or two, they seized and held, much more stubbornly, a rugged, rocky spur projecting at right angles from the farther side of a range of flat-topped hills. The ascent to the plateau on our side was gradual and easy, and going up we galloped across the top to the front, where our farther progress on horseback was arrested by an almost precipitous drop of about 100 feet into the valley below. The M. I. then spread themselves out right and left along the edge of the Cliff, about a quarter of a mile on either side of the spur, and those in the centre tried to press out on to it, but the Boers had such excellent cover behind boulders as large as huts that our men could make no impression. The artillery, shelling the kopje both with shrapnel and lyddite, seemed for the time equally ineffective.

We were on the right beside the guns, and below us in the valley a donga or dry water-course extended away parallel to the Beer position, and distant about 700 yards from it. Seeing some chance of surrounding the Boers if only they would wait on the hill, Pilcher ordered Campbell of the 17th—now raised to the rank of Major, and in charge of our two companies—to send eighty of us down into the donga, to hurry along to the end of the spur, and cut off their retreat. It looked a nasty task. The Beers were not long in noticing our move, and exposed to a heavy fire, we had to clamber down the cliff, then run about 300 yards over open ground to the donga. This we rather expected to find occupied, but it was not, and its steep sides afforded us good cover. The Ayr men were then halted, and kept up a heavy fire on the ridge, while Lieutenant Marshall and his two troops hurried along the bed of the water-course. Soon we sighted eighty to a hundred of the Beer horses huddled together in groups near the end of the hill, and already the Boers were going down to them, and galloping away in twos and threes. Run as we might we could not get along in time, so mounted the banks and started firing at them, at about moo yards range, as they rode off round the foot of the hill. We were shaky with so much unaccustomed running, but made very fair practice. Several saddles were emptied, and five or six horses shot, preventing the owners from getting away. A number of the Boers galloped round to a rise on the other side of the donga and started firing on us, but the movement was noticed by the gunners on the hill, and a few shells drove them away. When we left the donga and advanced to the spur it was getting so late that we had to hurry away without searching it properly, and only captured one of those whose horses had been shot. Of two five-inch howitzers brought with us from Aliwai North one was out that day, and we saw it in action for the first time. The lyddite shells on bursting make a tremendous noise, much louder than the discharge of the guns, and send up a great cloud of smoke and dust. We saw one man killed by the shock of the explosion, but generally the moral effect is greater than the damage done. In the dark, on the way back to camp, the advance guard got in touch with some other Boers who earlier in the day had attacked a few Army Service Corps waggons going to draw forage at a farm near Peru. The camp had been turned out, and one of our men who had not gone on the patrol had his horse shot. Strange to tell, for the whole day's fighting we had no casualties to report. One M.I. was struck on the head, but it was a mere scratch.

Christmas day was spent quietly in camp. We were rather amused at the preparation necessary to give us the usual double issue of jam and rum—several days' rations were withheld beforehand! Loot was rather scarce just then, and few messes managed a Christmas goose or turkey.

Knox had now commenced another concerted move, this time with columns under Pilcher, White, and Barker, and his first object was to drive the Boers into the more desolate country around Reitz. On the 26th we marched to within eight miles of Ficksburg, where Steyn and De Wet had their headquarters at the time. Next day the Yeomanry were despatched in advance of the rest, to go by a circuituous route, through wild mountainous country, and enter the town from behind, while the main force went direct. The Boers were already driven out, however, another column having reached Ficksburg before us. In the afternoon of the 27th we marched from Ficksburg fifteen miles in a northerly direction, having Barker on our right, and White on our left. The Boers hung in front of us all the time, and tried to delay our advance as much as possible.

On the following day, the 17th Company being advance screen, and the i 8th support, we chased the enemy up a long wild glen, and captured three waggons and some large herds of cattle. The waggons were sighted early in the morning about eight miles ahead of us, and the chase lasted six or seven hours. The valley was intersected with water-courses forty to fifty feet deep, with steep banks, which could only be negotiated at one or two places, and we were often delayed a long time hunting for a path. It was a day of great interest and excitement. The waggons were often in full view, and though the Boers offered a continual resistance, we pressed on, inspired and encouraged by Major Campbell, determined to catch some of them.

Next forenoon we were offered a very obstinate resistance on a big hill called Wit Kop. After about two hours' fighting, during which we had a horse hit, the Boers retired, and we proceeded towards Senekal. At our mid-clay halt an observation post was attacked, and we were sent forward to reinforce it. An enormous Boer convoy was then noticed, trekking over a hill from the direction of Senekal, and word was sent back to Pilcher. He at once ordered an advance, and we galloped forward with the screen to seize a kopje from which it was hoped that the waggons could at least be shelled. We were on the hill and under cover of some stone corrals almost before the Boers were ready for us. But the M. I. coming up afterwards were subjected to a heavy fire, and lost an officer and one man killed, and five men wounded. On the left, Major Campbell with the Ayr men advanced pluckily, while a strong force of M. I. pressed on the right in their usual determined manner. But nothing could be made of it. The Boers outnumbered our entire column nearly three to one, and we only held our position till nightfall, when they drew off. Camp was formed in the dark, at the foot of the hill, and our company was left on guard on the top. A heavy thunderstorm broke over us which lasted half the night.

On 30th December we were in touch with the Boers all day and advanced to the Zand River.

On the 31st, the Boers, numbering over 2000, held a strong position at Kaffir Kop, and a heavy engagement took place. The 18th Company with the 17th in support was sent out on the right to reconnoitre, and draw the Boer fire. Barker's column came up on that side, however, so we were recalled and left beside the guns for a while. Large bodies of Boers were seen moving about. A great many hurried across our front to meet Barker, and we watched them taking up their positions. White was supposed to be close on our left, but he had gone on too far, and to the great disgust of General Knox, about seven hundred Boers broke back and got behind us. When the movement was noticed the Yeomanry was the only available force to send after them, and starting we went on at full gallop for four miles, followed by Pilcher, and a gun. But it was no use. The Boers were seven to one, and as usual they had each one or two led horses, and could travel faster than we. Halting at a ridge we gave them some farewell volleys at 2500 to 2800 yards range, and it was found later in the day that we had killed a couple of their horses.

On ist January, 1901, all the columns converged on Lindley for supplies. In the early morning the Yeomanry had been sent with despatches for Barker, and going up over Kaffir Kop looking for him, we came under fire—not from the Boers who had occupied the hill the day before, but from some Imperial Bushmen who formed Barker's rearguard. Compliments were received and returned in a very lively manner for a few minutes, but peace was soon made, and the despatches were safely delivered. Barker's men then hurried on, and we were left to fight a running rearguard action for them till within a few miles of Lindley—this time with the Boers.

Our column rested at Lindley till the 4th, drawing provisions now much needed, for we had been on half rations of biscuits, no jam, and worst of all, no salt for ten days. Hearing of the disaster to the bodyguard when Colonel Leng was killed, we moved out in the direction of Reitz and Heilbron. Nothing however was accomplished in the way of punishing the Boers, and on the 6th we turned south again in the direction of Senekal and Winburg. Two days afterwards we halted at a large horse-breeder's farm, twelve miles from Senekal, and got a lot of remounts; but most of them were wild and unbroken, and they did not last well with such constant hard work as we were forced to give them. The farm belonged to Englishmen, but seemed to us to be simply a convenient Boer remount station. Pilcher took the whole concern to the railway with him—horses and cattle, folk and furniture. On the 10th we entered Senekal, and on the 12th were again in Winburg.

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