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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter XIII

EXCEPT for the crowds of kharki-clad men in the streets, Bloemfontein hardly looked like a town in the midst of a desolate, war-wasted country. Ladies who, to our non-critical eyes, appeared to be gaily and fashionably attired, promenaded the streets, and the shops were well stocked with all sorts of things which filled our souls with longing. But the paymaster was in Cape Town —we heard stories of fine fishing expeditions to Simons Bay, money was hard to get, though there was several months' pay in arrears. In the evenings we went to the theatre, almost with one accord, and though we may forget "Jim the Penman," we will always be reminded of those nights in Bloemfontein when we hear the song, then new to us, about "The Navy! the British Navy!" It was sung with profuse apologies to the Army, of which the audience was almost entirely composed.

On 14th March our column left Bloemfontein on an expedition to clear the district between Ladybrand, Ficksburg, and Winburg. Our marches, as a rule, were short, from ten to fifteen miles, but whenever we got settled in camp, patrols were despatched with waggons to bring in the families from all farms within a radius of eight or ten miles.

Trekking eastwards towards Ficksburg, we passed to the north of Thaba N'chu, and on the fifth day reached a hill called Ratzan Kop. From there, early next morning, a patrol under Major Campbell, consisting of Yeomanry and two horse-guns, was sent to clear several farms in the direction of Mequatling's Nek. We were hardly clear of the camp pickets when the Boers attacked us, but they were not in great numbers, and we passed steadily on from farm to farm. The last on our list was fourteen miles out, and between the resistance offered by the Boers and soft ground in which the waggons were constantly sticking, we did not reach it till four o'clock in the afternoon. There too, we lost a lot of time, for the old frau was refractory and could not be got to mount the waggon beside her husband without a lot of persuasion both from him and from us. Soon after we started back it got dark, and we were further delayed when the waggon on which the old couple were perched slipped sideways off the road, going up from a spruit, and stuck in a donga six feet deep, whence our united efforts could not move it. Though we had taken a different route and eluded the Boers, whom we suspected would be waiting for us on the road by which we had gone out, we did not get into camp till far on Into the night.

On the 22nd we marched through Modder Poort to Wet Spruit, near Clocolan, where we remained for two days, and were sent out patrolling. On the first day, after touching at a farm from which the Boers themselves had removed everything except about 2000 bags of wheat, the 17th Company went on to another, while we rounded up a few horses and some large herds of cattle. The Ayr men had just reached the farm when some Boers opened fire from a high ridge above it. The girls of the house, aware of what was coming, were on the lookout, and danced with delight to see the British run for cover. The fire was heavy and well-directed, and the Boers kept so well hidden that our men could see no one to aim at, and eventually had to retire empty-handed. But we went back next day with a gun and the laugh was then on our side.

The enemy generally did little but snipe at us when the whole column was on the march, but made strenuous efforts to hold up and punish the patrols. They could guess, of course, which farms we would visit from any particular base, and would lie in wait for us along the road. What data the staff had to go on when fixing the size of our patrols we never could tell, but they managed wonderfully to adjust our numbers to the strength of Boers we would meet. Probably this was in great measure due to one of the staff Intelligence Officers—Major Gale, of Remington's Scouts. Mounted on a scraggy but wiry pony, and carrying a telescope as large as a Maxim gun, he was a well-known figure to every man in the column as he rode about followed by half-a-dozen jabbering native guides. To be sure, the time came now and again when a weak patrol was met by the enemy in force, and it took hard work on the part of both officers and men to prevent a disaster. There is no doubt, too, that the keen and energetic nature of our commander influenced the men of all ranks in the column, and reduced the tendency amongst them to become careless and inconsequent, thus going a great way to prevent the occurrence of any unfortunate incidents, such as have too often stained the glory of British arms under later phases of the war.

On the 26th we marched through Clocolan to Prynsburg and had two more days patrolling from there. The Boers were gathering in greater force and opposed us most obstinately. The mobility of the column was now greatly reduced by the convoy of refugees and the great herds of cattle we had to take about with us; so, being quite near Ficksburg, they were all sent in there on 29th March, while the column, relieved of its burden, trekked back to Modder Poort. Very little escort was sent with the refugee waggons, but some twenty of us, with two officers, were posted on the top of a kopje to see that they got safely into the hands of the Ficksburg garrison which was out to meet them. The column would be ten miles on the road to Modder Poort before we left the hill to rejoin it, and we proceeded with great caution, for much firing and shelling had been heard during the forenoon, and it was quite expected that the Boers would be waiting for us somewhere on the road. Sure enough, before we had gone three miles, seven or eight appeared on a hill on our right and began to fire on us. While the officers were considering whether we should attack them, other ten appeared near a drift we had to cross, and it was decided to push on without delay, for the sound of firing seemed likely to attract Boers from all quarters. Four or five of the best mounted men were left to hold the enemy in check while the rest found a crossing farther down the stream, and eventually we all got safely into camp before dark.

Major Campbell and the 17th Company had been in a hot corner during the day, having been volleyed at by some men of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, while engaging Boers on the other side. It took a long time to convince the former that they were firing on friends.

On the last day of March, after some fighting, our force occupied Mequatling's Nek—a dangerous pass beside the Korannaberg Mountain, which had long been known as the headquarters of a large commando. Owing to the wild and rugged nature of the country, it required the utmost vigilance on the part of those on picket and observation post to save their skins from the Boer snipers, who kept moving about round the camp, indulging in long-distance shooting, and creeping up near when they could.

On 1st April, among the many heliograph messages sent from Thaba N'chu there was one affecting us. It announced that four men from each company could get their discharge and go home at once. Perhaps the people at the Yeomanry headquarters gave this sop expecting to put us in a good humour; but how we fumed and raged! After sticking to our work so long, always looking forward to arrive back in Scotland together, here we were to be sent back in paltry driblets! Our inclination was to refuse the offer, and wait on till we could all get away at once; but it was impossible to get everybody to act as one. In our company lots were drawn, and in the Ayrshire Company urgent cases were submitted for arbitration, and the four apparently most needed at home were selected to go.

Two days afterwards, on leaving Mequatling's Nek, fourteen Yeomanry and M.I. were left in ambush in a house beside the camp to trap the Boers should any come, as they were in the habit of doing, to search the ground for ammunition. On this occasion, however, they were very cautious, hanging around in the distance as though they suspected something, so that, after waiting five hours, our men had to leave the house and follow after the column.

On 4th April we reached Mooi Water, a farm about a day's march from Thaba N'chu.

When we turned west from near Ficksburg the farm- clearing process was continued, and we had again a large convoy of refugees. The women suffered their enforced removal in very different ways. Many, evidently reduced to great straits from lack of food, were anxious to be removed, and would begin to get their goods together as soon as we came in sight. Some brought out their Bibles and cursed us roundly in high-pitched, hysterical voices, refusing to be quieted; while others hid their feelings, whatever they were, and chatted with us, cracking jokes while we bundled them out. In general their callousness rendered our disagreeable task easier, for it made it difficult for us to believe that these dour-faced, sullen women could be possessed of such delicate feelings as we know would be roused in our own women-folk in such circumstances. Often our sympathy was alienated by their deceitfulness, and our hearts were hardened and our tempers roused by the brutal way in which so many of them gloated over the number of our men whom their husbands and brothers boasted of having sniped. At other times, however, more kindly feelings prevailed, and we were able to appreciate what it really meant to these poor people to be torn from their homes and set to face an unknown fate which could not but fill them with dread and foreboding. Often in the cool of the evening twilight, as the waggons rumbled into camp, the Boer women would join in singing their "Volkslied" to raise their drooping spirits, and we have been more touched than was consistent with our peace of mind, in view of having probably to rout out more on the morrow. It was impossible also not to be to some extent in sympathy with their very general desire for the war to go on. They heard but little of disasters happening to their own side, but plenty of the bravery and success of immediate friends, so remained with an unshaken belief that their side would ultimately win. One of the greatest trials of their removal to a concentration camp must have been the disillusionment on this point. Apart too, from the fact that the removal of families from the farms increased a hundredfold the difficulties of storing and redistributing ammunition and supplies, the loss of their moral support and sympathy must have been one of the severest blows to the Boer men. The most disheartened and dispirited among them would go out again, like a giant refreshed, after a ten days' holiday at a friendly farm, coddled, loved, and idolised by a houseful of women, and flattered into fancying himself a hero and a patriot.

As far as one can judge, there is little of either heroism or patriotism among the men on commando now. They compel neither one's admiration, respect, nor pity. Commandeering their food and supplies throughout the country, and lifting their clothing from towns when occasion offers, they are probably a hundred times better fed, better clothed, and better mounted than ever in their lives before. Rendered desperate by deeds of violence, they are afraid to surrender, and, besides, they must now be to a great extent intoxicated by the wild excitement of their perilous and adventurous existence.

Mool Water continued to be our headquarters for over a week. During the first two days all farms in the neighbourhood were cleared. Next day we rested, and a convoy arrived from Thaba N'chu with mails; then at night a strong patrol of Yeomanry and M. I. with two guns, under Colonel Pilcher, set off to attack the Boers in the Korannaberg.

The top of the hill forms a large undulating grassy plateau, about five miles long by one to one-and-a-half broad, on which there is a farm and several kaffir kraals. After about six hours' marching we arrived at the foot of the bill, and a company of M. I. were sent up, while it was still dark, by one of the only two paths leading on to the plateau, in order to cover the ascent of the guns and main body. Whenever it became light the guns started. The road was a mere bridle path, steep, rough, and narrow, and at every turn it appeared that insurmountable obstacles barred the way. But the horses struggled on grandly —eight big strong beasts in each limber, straining to their utmost, and clawing the ground like cats—and after frequent rests they managed to the top without a hitch. We were all crowding up the path, Yeomanry and regulars together, some in front of the guns and some behind, and had just gained the brow of the hill, when, to our surprise, we came under a smart fire. The advance party seemed to have reached the top before the Boers got the alarm, and we had expected them to be sufficiently far forward on the hill to protect the top of the path. The companies were all mixed up, but almost mechanically the horses were hurried down under shelter and we clambered forward, rifle in hand, to see what was the matter. Those who were firing at us were lying close under cover, and all we could see were a few Boers riding up and down in the distance. A number of our fellows at once began to shoot in the direction from which the bullets were coming, but word was soon passed round to stop. The men in front of us were our own advance party—our old friends, the K.O.S.B. M.I., with whom the Ayrshire men had such trouble a few days before. It was a disagreeable moment for all, because the Boers were pressing the K.O.S.B. on the farther side, and were also getting in some long distance shooting at us, to 'which in the muddle ' we were quite unable to reply. When we taxed the Borderers about it afterwards they said they had not been given the slightest idea why they were sent up the hill, and had certainly not been expecting us to follow them. Probably the officer in charge knew, but when the trouble began his men would be too much scattered, and too much taken up with the enemy in front to receive an order quickly. How they could have taken a Royal Horse gun with eight horses for Boers beats us, however, and they must have seen it, for they wounded one of the team. In the scrimmage a man of the Border Company was shot. This unfortunate affair delayed us an hour, and lost us all chance of capturing any of the Boers.

By-and-by we began to move along the top of the hill— M. I. on the right, and Yeomanry with the guns on the left. We were passing below a cliff about forty feet high when a sharp volley came from some rocks close in front. There was a scurry for cover among the boulders at the base of the cliff, and the guns were out of sight almost before we were; all we could see when we looked back were the two muzzles sticking out beyond some rocks. One of our fellows was shot in the foot while in the act of dismounting. A gun was quickly wheeled out a few yards by hand, and some shells were sent screaming over our heads which soon dislodged the enemy. Under Captain Coats we were sent to make a flanking movement on the left, and after a hard and exciting gallop occupied a hill parallel with the enemy's new position. To reach the hill we had to ride up a bare hog-backed ridge, and having seen Boers all along the top before we started, we were painfully sure we were in for a cutting-up. The nearer we got to the top the more anxiously did we await the dreaded volley, but it never came, for the Boers had fled! The Ayr men were not so fortunate. Galloping forward in the centre, they came under a sniping fire, and one of them was severely wounded, the bullet passing through his neck.

Shortly afterwards we were left in possession of the entire hill, but as far as we could tell the Boer casualties would not equal ours. We bivouacked for the night on the plateau, and next morning left to return to Mooi Water. We lost a guide that day—a fine, pawky, cool-headed old Scotsman named Carmichael, who had long been settled in the district and knew it well. He had expressed his opinion that no Boers had returned to the hill during the night, and went away by himself to have a look round, but never rejoined us. We have often speculated as to how he met his death, for killed he must assuredly have been. It is not likely he would surrender, for he knew, and often used to tell us, that the Boers if they caught him, would show him no mercy. The guides we picked up through the country—mostly half-breeds of some sort—were quite the poorest class of men we have seen, becoming absolutely useless from terror as soon as a shot was fired. We deeply regretted the loss of such a splendid exception as was our fellow-countryman Carmichael.

The day after this a large draft of the new Yeomanry arrived at our camp—,"The Five Shilling Yeomanry" as they were called, to distinguish them from us the "One-and-five-penny men"; though, of course, we also were then in receipt of five shillings a day. With them came twenty veterans under Captain Gilmour—all that were left together of the original Fife Company. It was the actual beginning of the end for us, but there was still another month's trekking before us ere we got clear away.

We were somewhat disappointed with the new men. They were absolutely untrained. Though all were supposed to have had three weeks' training at Aldershot, many had not been on a horse since passing a perfunctory riding test till they were mounted at Bloemfontein to come out and join us. It was most disgraceful mismanagement to send such men into active service. Pilcher had us all paraded, and gave us a lecture. He said, among other things, that he hoped the old hands would do their best to render the newcomers as efficient as possible before leaving—that indeed we were not likely to get away till they were efficient. We found it rather amusing working along with them. They brought to our recollection our own first sensations—always wanting to be out on patrols, and anxious to see the enemy. They were all made miserable one night because a shower on as old soldiers; but the first few days' work cleared them pretty quickly of most of their sentimental ideas.

Trekking out towards the north end of the Korannaberg, the column met with considerable resistance, but most of the work was done by the Artillery and the M. I. On 16th April, however, after only three days' trekking, the new fellows got a good taste of what they were so anxious for. Early in the morning patrols were despatched in all directions. The Ayr men, new and old, were Out under Major Campbell, and had some brisk work. They had one man wounded—shot in the leg. Half of our men were out in another direction along with some M.I. and a gun, and stubborn resistance was offered them almost all day. At one time a part of the force was occupying a farm, but the men were unable to move for a heavy cross-fire kept up by Boers on two small kopjes in front. A sergeant and ten of our men were ordered to clear one of them, thought to be held by about seventeen of the enemy. Galloping out round a wall, they came at once under fire, but before they had gone more than half-way to the hill the Boers took fright, and, standing up, they fired a few last rounds before they bolted, seriously wounding one of the new Yeomen and bringing down three horses.

Next day they were in the thick of it again. The column marched twelve miles in the forenoon, and, after an hour's rest, half of each company were ordered out on patrol. The farm to be visited lay below a hill, and on nearing it we were pulled up sharply by a heavy fire from an invisible enemy. Our men lined out, and the pom-pom shelled the bill, but the Boers had such excellent cover that nothing was effected. A party tried to ride over to the farm but were turned, and it seemed as if nothing could be done, for our numbers were too small to outflank the hill. At this time seven of us who had been Out on a flank rode up, and Major Campbell ordered us to dash into the farm while he tried to distract the attention of the Boers by a heavy fusilade and some rounds from the porn-porn. We were to ascertain whether the farm was occupied or not, and if it contained forage. A wire fence, in which we had to find an opening, barred the way, and the Boers were not more than five or six hundred yards off, but we got safely under cover of a high stone wall about forty yards from the house. Here two men were left with the horses, and the rest ran over on foot. Fortunately the sun was low behind us, and shone right into the eyes of the Boers. The farm was empty. When we returned to our horses Major Campbell and two other men had come up, and we had to run the gauntlet again as we galloped away in twos and threes.

One of these days we saw as fine a bit of artillery practice from "U" Battery as could be seen. Passing near a hill, the column was sniped at by Boers on the crest of it. The guns, of course, were turned on them at once, and it seems some M.I. had got behind the hill and prevented their escape except along the ridge, which was quite exposed to the artillery fire. We were all halted, and lay about on the grass watching through our glasses. Whenever a Boer showed himself a shell would burst beside him; and whenever any were seen to take cover, the spot would be searched till there was little chance of their being left alive. The convoy came up and was parked besides us, and the native drivers went into ecstasies. Whenever an extra fine shot was fired, a wave of interjection would break out—" Ah!" The M. I. who went up on the hill came back with stories of eleven killed and many wounded, but we never heard an official report on the matter.

On the 19th we were back at Trommel, and during a long gallop after some Boers we were again fired on by the K.O.S.B., but no damage was done. We made another night march to Leeuw Kop, under circumstances much the same as before, but it was no more successful, the information this time being at fault.

In three more days we were back near Winburg again, and got more mails. Here Lieutenant Marshall left us to go home. He was the youngest subaltern, but was a splendid officer and a favourite with both companies. The monotony never spoiled him as it did others, for he remained keen and plucky to the end.

On the evening of the 23rd we began a long and trying night march into Senekal. Everyone was painfully sleepy and tired—perhaps we had not got over the effects of the march to Leeuw Kop, three nights before.

From Senekal three days hard marching brought us to within a few miles of Reitz, and next day the Yeomanry were sent on to destroy it. Our orders were to burn all stores and render the houses uninhabitable, by smashing windows and breaking off doors. The town was empty but for the Landrost and his family, also a wounded Colonial, who had been captured and then wilfully shot. The rest of the women and children had been removed by the Boers, in order that they should not be sent to a concentration camp, but the heavy ox waggons in which they trekked with all their property so hampered the enemies' movements that we were almost sure to make up on them sooner or later and capture their laager. Indeed, only two days before, we had captured twenty-seven waggons containing many of the Reitz families.

On 20th April, returning towards Senekal, we had what proved to be one of our last encounters with the Boers. The 20th Company formed the advance screen, with 17th and 18th Companies in support on the left and right flanks respectively. The screen came into touch with some snipers while the column was crossing a drift, and in a few minutes Captain Gilmour sent back word that a small Boer convoy was in sight, trekking hard a couple of miles ahead. Forward we started at a gallop, and did not stop till we made up on the last three waggons, while the Boers fled incontinently, leaving the women to their fate. The Ayr men coming up from their side Went on, and captured other two waggons and a Cape-cart

Our experience has been that Boer courage was a very variable quality, at least in the later stages of the war. At Bothaville the men shut in around the farm shot straight and fought obstinately, hoping to save their guns by holding out till their comrades could drive us off. At Tobaksberg, owing to their numbers, they were dangerous opponents; and occasionally at other times, when conditions were altogether in their favour, they made a good stand and pressed us hard. But months of fighting—driving the Boers before us day after day—and always with a small casualty list, hardly suggest keenly-contested encounters; and it seemed to us that any show of dash and spirit completely demoralised them.

On 2nd May we were again at Senekal and marched thence to Ventersburg, which had been destroyed by Bruce Hamilton, and on to Ventersburg Road.

One of these days we had absolutely our last encounter with the Boers. We were out on patrol with the 17th Company, when four waggons and a Cape-cart were captured without much opposition.

Several hundreds of the new Yeomanry were at Venters- burg Road Station awaiting the arrival of our column, and we began to hope we might all get away there and then. Colonel Pilcher, however, seemed unwilling to lose us, and said the best he could offer was to allow 25 per cent. to leave at once, and have the rest stay on till the new men were more efficient. The proposal was badly received, for it was too indefinite, and meant the breaking up of the companies, which we were so anxious to avoid. Later an officer on General Knox's staff arrived to arrange the matter, and we were better pleased when Colonel Campbell's suggestion was agreed to—that we should all trek for a fortnight longer and then get off together. Almost all the old men were promoted to be sergeants and corporals, and arrangements were made to drill and instruct the newcomers, and teach them as much as possible in the limited time.

A grand concert was held at night in celebration of this our first definite order about going home. Colonel Campbell occupied the chair, and representatives were present from the Artillery, M.I., and Army Service Corps.

Late at night, when we were mostly asleep, a telegram arrived from headquarters saying that the 18th Company, under Captain Coats, could go home. What a scene there was next morning-12th May—when we heard the news! Orders were given to hand over our horses and saddlery to the new men, and march on foot to the station at six o'clock. Soon we were swinging out of the camp, to the strain of the "Cock o' the North," the envy of all the rest. We were in dread lest we might after all be turned at the station, but General Knox, seeing the telegram, said it was all right. Before we steamed out of the station Colonel Pilcher came and bade us good-bye. Now that we were actually on the train going home it was easy to forgive him for having tried to keep us, and we could not but remember for how much we had to thank him during all the time we were under his command.

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