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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter V

AT Villiersdorp the banks of the Vaal are much higher than at Fourteen Streams, and from our position on the high bluff overlooking the river it was a fine sight to watch the long line of troops, artillery, mule and ox waggons, and Cape- carts winding down the rough steep road to the drift and up on the other side. From a distance everything seemed to move like clockwork, but down below all was bustle and excitement, the native drivers screaming and yelling at their teams, and cracking their whips with a noise like rifle shots! —the transport officers shouting orders and directions from one side of the river to the other, and getting hysterical over men driving badly, and waggons sticking! The road on the other side was crowded with men pushing and pulling at the waggons—running up beside the teams—one to each mule— and making rude but encouraging remarks, while they whacked them with sticks or belts; every one in earnest— sweating, blown, and nearly blinded and choked by the clouds of dust stirred up by so much traffic. At night, when the fires were lit, the camp looked like a large town.

By dusk, on 1st July, the convoy, which had taken a day and a half to get over, was all safely on the other side, and trekking towards the town of Frankfort. So, our little brush with the Boer snipers over, we left our post on the heights to cross the drift and push on after it. About a dozen men were left as rear-guard to cover our passage, with Instructions to follow as soon as they saw us across. They did not, however, make up on us at once, so three men were sent back to look for them. The rear-guard soon joined us, but the others did not put in an appearance till the following night, and there was much speculation as to their probable fate. We thought they must certainly have fallen into the hands of the Boers behind us. It seems they had gone away back across the river, meeting neither our men nor the Boers, and had taken a wrong road in the dark on their return. Late at night they put up at a farm, and getting on the trail next day joined us at Frankfort in the evening, just in time to escape being reported missing. They had been hospitably received at another Boer farm during the day, the women-folk bringing Out coffee, bread, and eggs, for which they would accept nothing. Whether the Boer women became more vindictive as the war dragged on, or this family only happened to be more than usually amiable, it is difficult to say; but certainly, after we had gained more experience, we should have feared to put off much time under such circumstances, lest while treating us so well they should be treacherously planning our capture.

We stayed one day at Frankfort, and here the C. I.V.'s left with a convoy of sick for Heilbron. Here, too, we were joined by Macdonald with his Highland Brigade.

The following day our company was fired on while riding along a valley in extended order. A few Boers held a hill on our left and opened on us at pretty long range. Four men who halted at some kraals on the left of our line were hotly peppered as they mounted and galloped over to the rise from which their troop was returning the fire. For the next three days, while we marched south to Reitz, the snipers hung persistently round the column and gave a lot of trouble, but did little or no damage. These little incidents, trivial in themselves, show how gradually we became used to encountering the enemy, so that when at length we did meet them in earnest we did not feel altogether like raw troops. At Heidelberg Colonel Burn had joined General Ridley's staff, so the two companies were now under the adjutant, Captain Vereker.

On 7th July we entered Reitz, and at once took an intense dislike to it. A few of the houses had gardens, but the majority were just planted down on the bare ground with some heaps of unused building material about the doors, to show that they really had been built in position, and not simply brought along and set down whole, as appeared. Perhaps the horrid stench of dead horses, and the sight of them in the surrounding ponds, may have bred our dislike. Certain it is, that afterwards, when we were wont to picture ourselves as doomed to trek for ever and ever after De Wet in the Orange River ColonSr, we would talk of another visit to Reitz as the climax of our woes.

From Reitz we went to Heilbron, four days' march, as guard to an empty convoy, which, after filling up, was to rejoin the column at Bethlehem.

The country through which we had been passing since leaving Johannesburg was totally different from the bleak and thorn-grown lands on the western border of the Transvaal. It was principally fine rolling veldt, with here and there kopjes and flat-topped hills. The farms, too, were generally better built, and good gardens with orchards were much more common. The grass, often more than a foot high, was as dry as tinder, and fires were of daily occurrence. Some we started ourselves, at least the smokers did through carelessness, but most were lit by the Boers at nightfall as signals, and to locate our camps. The fires made a grand show after dark, and our camps were often quite lit up by the glare. We once saw it stated with all seriousness in a standard home magazine that in South Africa the soldiers were in the habit of cooking their food at veldt fires, and had often to run several miles while boiling a pan of water! It is certainly a most amusing idea to picture a man having to run a mile or two holding his pan over the fire all the time, but would be little fun to the poor fellow who had to depend on making his tea in such a manner.

The fires seldom troubled us, but on the day after we left Reitz one broke out in our camp which worried us very much indeed. We had just settled down after a good long march, and a lot of us had gone to a farm close by to see if there was butter or bread to be had. Others had gone off for oat straw for the horses, leaving probably not mpre than a third of our number in the horse lines. Some of the Ayrshire Company who were to windward of us, while lighting their fire allowed the grass to kindle. Fanned by a strong wind, it was out of band in an instant and travelling down upon us. One or two who had watched the performance from the beginning, at once gave the alarm and ran up to let loose the first section horses, which were nearest the fire, but it travelled so quickly that several were scorched and burned before they got free. Every available man was now working like a madman. The saddles, rifles, and bandoliers had to be saved, or how could we defend ourselves or the convoy? Then we turned our attention to field-glasses and haversacks, last to kits and tents. Few of the latter, however, were saved. They were mostly lying up beside the waggon, which had just been emptied, and were all set alight as the fire raged past. To add to the confusion, the smoke was blinding, the heat terrific, and bullets from bandoliers which had been overlooked began to fly about much too thickly for one's peace of mind. We were one and all absolutely winded, and choking with smoke, but when there was no more stuff to save we set to work to beat out the fire with blankets and sacks. It was hopeless work till it burned where the grass was short; then we got it out. After the fire had passed, all sorts of articles lay smouldering on the hot, black ground. Here a saddle, there a kit. Here a man returned from the farm bemoans his haversack overlooked among the grass, and there another pokes regretfully at his almost red-hot field-glasses. The biggest losses, however, are round the waggon, where we hurriedly open our smouldering packs to try and save the blankets inside. And still the burning bandoliers kept firing off their rounds. A man, wanting to put out a very full one, began prodding at it with a long stick, when bang went five or six cartridges at once. Down went the stick in a hurry, and round he danced on one leg, holding up the other, for a bullet had struck him on the knee. Only two of us, however, were hit, and the bullets did not enter the flesh. Would the Imperial Light Horse have called this being "blooded"?—! doubt not. One man in his shirt sleeves comes up with forage, and goes to hunt for what has been left him. But his stuff was very near where the fire started, and he finds himself minus rifle, saddle, tunic, cloak, or blanket. He has nothing left but what he stands in—shirt, breeches, putties, and boots. As many blankets as possible were collected from neighbouring Boer farms, and distributed before nightfall to those who had lost theirs. Now some might be disposed to think that to have no blanket would be better than having a Boer blanket. But not so. One man who slept in commandeered blankets told me next day that he had had the first decent night's rest for weeks. He said that his breed and the Boer breed had such a desperate fight among themselves that they forgot about him altogether!

One of these days we commandeered two exceptionally fine little ponies at a farm. They were not much over thirteen hands high, but were beautifully shaped and strong. The poor woman was in a great state, and the children, whose pets the ponies evidently were, hung round them tearfully. We tried to interest them in two done old hacks we were going to leave, putting a solemn-faced little boy on one and leading it round. He was proud of himself for the moment, as he sat holding the reins and a big whip, and his tears stopped k— but suddenly he saw his beloved ponies being led off, and what a face he made! One of the kind that grows longer and longer for about two minutes, till the bubble bursts inside and the yell gets Out. Long before that stage was reached however, the big yeoman, thinking it was time he was out of it, lifted the boy down off the horse, and fairly ran away. None but one who knows what it is to be compelled to ride a horse that is done, when Boers may be encountered any minute, or who has to foot it with a mounted column, away back among the dust, beside the waggons, could be expected to understand how we could be so cruel as to take them at all. Both lasted well, especially the smaller one, but it got a sore back eventually, and was relegated to pull a Cape-cart.

Very few of the horses brought from home were still with us at this time—not more, I believe, than eight or nine, if as many. Poor brutes! they did not get anything like the chance our later remounts had. They suffered dreadfully from the cold during the freezing nights, and we were not allowed to carry horse blankets. Then we had to feed them on oats—nothing but oats. I have heard it said that one might as well try to feed a man on beef-lozenges, and it seems a reasonable enough comparison. Of course, it was impossible to carry hay all round the country on such a journey as the one we' had made, but there was plenty of dry grass, and the farms were bursting with oat straw. The latter was never commandeered, and the former was not made use of as it might have been, for the horses in the earlier part of the campaign were always tied up when in camp, while later we had to turn them out to graze as often as possible. We had received remounts at Vryburg, Potchefstroom, and Kimberley, and could always pick up an odd one here and there through the country. And it seems to be a universally recognised rule in the army, on active service, that the finder of a strayed horse keeps it till the owner turns up to claim it.

We were greatly delighted at the thought of getting to Heilbron, it being a railway town with stores; and when, on x ith July, we reached it and heard that mail bags were awaiting us, our satisfaction knew no bounds. How eagerly tve read our letters and compared the news, looked at papers and discussed the war, opened parcels of sweets, and food- stuffs, and clothes, grudging even the time to water and feed our horses F And how untidy the tents got, with all the litter of wrapping papers and the packing out of chocolate boxes; even the tidy man forgot himself for hours and hours, and did not suggest a cleaning up!

The convoy full, we left Heilbron on 13th July, and reached Bethlehem on the 19th. Nothing of much note occurred on this journey except on the 17th and 18th, when De Wet, having broken through the cordon which was being drawn round Prinsloo, passed, and threatened to attack us; but he was being closely followed by cavalry brigades under Generals Broadwood and Ridley, so left us unmolested.

When we arrived in Bethlehem the cow - guns were booming away on the hills above the town. Nearly 20,000 troops were now assembled round the Boers in the Fouriesberg basin, for besides the force he had brought from the Transvaal, Hunter had with. him Rundle, who had been holding the long line between Ficksburg and Senekal with 8000 men of the 8th and Brabant's Colonial Divisions, Paget with 2000 men from Lindley, and Clements with 3000 from Winburg. We were given over to Bruce Hamilton, and next day marched out along with the Cameron Highlanders and some. Mounted Infantry. During the three days of fighting that followed I was attached to the Highlanders, and had a grand opportunity of seeing infantry at work, but am hardly in a position to describe the part played by the Yeomanry.

Trooper R. E. Wilson, of our company, has, however, been good enough to take the matter off my hands, and a chapter by him on the fighting among the Bethlehem hills now follows.

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