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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter IX

ONCE again we entered Kroonstad with expectations of hearing something definite about getting home. We had seen Lord Roberts's declaration of 19th September—"There is nothing now left of the Boer army but a few marauding bands," and the general opinion seemed to be that the police would be left to look after them; but, as usual, we began at once to refit for further trekking, getting clothes, horses, and saddlery.

We found a lot of details of our two companies in camp at Kroonstadmen who had left us at different times, and been gradually gathered together again. We hoped to get them out with us, for it would have made our work lighter, but under Lieutenant Donaldson they formed part of the garrison, and, according to the commandant, General W. Knox, could not be spared. A few, left at Winburg on our last trek from want of horses, joined us here; they had been doing garrison duty at Bosman's Kop, between Bloemfontein and Thaba N'chu.

An attempt had been made by Le Gallais to imitate the Boer transport, by using Cape-carts instead of waggons, but it had not proved a success. For one thing, good horses to pull them could not be spared, so those useless for riding were made to do duty. The rearguard in those days had an arduous task, patching up rotten harness, changing and re- changing done horses, often breaking up carts altogether for which fresher teams could not be got, and distributing their loads over other Cape-carts already hardly able to be dragged along. With the Boers, transport was always an easier matter, for with every farm a store-house, they did not require to carry the great quantities of food, forage, and ammunition, without which we could not get along at all.

On 16th October we marched Out from Kroonstad in a westerly direction, two other columns co-operating with us, all under General Charles Knox. Small parties of Boers were encountered daily, and on several occasions we had to turn out about sunset to repel an attack on the camp pickets. On the 19th we were at Driefontein Drift on the Valsch River, a few miles south of Bothaville. With half the column we were left there three days, while Le Gallais with the rest went to Ventersburg, where De Wet had been reported. The Boer leader, however, was still in the Transvaal engaged with Barton, who, with Fusiliers, Imperial Light Horse, and the Edinburgh Yeomanry, had been surrounded at Frederik stad. On the 25th, when all his ammunition was nearly used up, Barton succeeded in driving off De Wet, who retired south to the Vaal, where Knox met him. On the same day, after a long and hurried march, we crossed the Rhenoster River at Winkle Drift, and then the Vaal at Schuman's Drift, camping for the night, in a maze of thorny scrub, by the river side. On the 27th all was uncertainty. We moved a few miles along the road to Potchefstroom, but were recalled. Early next morning, however, we set off hurriedly for Venterskroom Drift—alongexecrable roads, but amidst grand scenery —for word had come that Knox was fighting De Wet at Rensburg, and Le Gallais's orders were to prevent their escape into the Orange River Colony by seizing the south side of the drift. Crossing at Venterskroom as quickly as possible we hurried on, but arrived at Rensburg Drift just a little too late for a large capture. The column had been travelling all day through mountainous and often heavily wooded country, but late in the afternoon, issuing from a rocky gorge, we got on to the rolling grassy veldt again. A halt was made for half an hour, and our screen came in touch with the Boers. We had known nothing of the object of all the hurried marching hither and thither, across rivers and back again, but we could now hear big guns firing, and knew there must be something in the wind. Retiring before Knox, the Boers had crossed the drift with the loss of one gun, eight waggons, and a number of killed and wounded, and were fleeing south, hidden from us by a long low ridge which extended across our left front. When the guns at length moved forward, the Yeomanry were sent out on the left flank. As a few of the Mounted Infantry from the screen were keeping up a smart fire from the ridge, behind which, still unknown to us, the Boers were escaping, Vereker galloped us up to see what was the matter.

Passing one or two of the regulars, they told us that if we wanted to get to the top of the bill we had better be quick about it, for 2000 Boers were advancing up the other side. For the moment, as we galloped forward, we saw ourselves annihilated, and the guns in the hands of the enemy, but we had not allowed enough for the Tommies' imagination. When we got up we saw the Boers, not in thousands, and not coming up the hill, but in hundreds, galloping along the foot of it, thinking of little but how to get safely away. We opened fire on them at from 1200 to 1500 yards, and did some execution. In a few minutes, when they were all passed, we mounted, and, hurrying on several miles, made up on the main body of Mounted Infantry and the Ayrshire Yeomanry, who were firing at a small round kopje which the Boers were holding to cover their retreat. Along with some of the regulars, we galloped round to the left of the kopje, while the Ayr men and some other troops went round to the right. We all passed, or passed near, an abandoned Boer gun, the capture of which we lay claim to because we passed it first, and the Ayrshire men because they left a man on it when they rode by. Doubtless all the Mounted Infantry Companies lay claim to it as well. It was now almost dark, and we were having a last few shots at the retreating enemy. The guns, too, were still shelling the kopje, when a tremendous explosion occurred on the other side of the hill. A shot from one of our guns had struck and blown up a Boer waggon with dynamite and ammunition.

The ground, when we saw it next morning, was strewn. with shrapnel and other bullets, bits of waggon, and dead mules. Two or three men had been on it when it blew up, and we buried as much of them as we could find. Returning past the little kopje, our battery sent a shell or two unpleasantly near us—bursting in the dark they looked like fireworks—but no one was hit. Our next great business was to find camp. We had retraced our steps about two miles, when word came that the convoy was coming on; so we halted to wait for it. At the same time a terrific thunderstorm broke over us. The rain came down in torrents, and felt like ice-water. Many of us were without our cloaks, so were soaked in a minute. The lightning flashes showed us the waggons and Cape-carts struggling past one by one, and orderlies were despatched to intercept ours and guide them to us. No trace of them could be found however, so there we stood for two hours, rifle in one hand, reins in the other, unable even to move about to keep ourselves warm, for the horses would not lead in the storm, and the ground was three inches deep with mud and water. At last, in desperation, we formed lines, picketed the horses, and off-saddled. A couple of men had just got a fire lit under a blanket—we were becoming almost as handy as the regulars—when we heard that the Cape-carts were out- spanned a quarter of a mile back. There was nothing for it but to move over to them. The night was absolutely black, and it was almost an impossibility to find one's saddlery; it was probably by that time tramped deep into the mud by fellows stumbling around. About midnight, bully-beef and biscuits were issued, and Captain Coats gave us each a couple of glasses of whisky—a kindly act, which must have saved many of us from colds or worse. Some got their blankets and slept in them, but many preferred to sit round the ire and hear stories. Great amusement was caused when Captain Coats and Doctor Naismith enlightened each other regarding their respective nicknames. We were hardly such a sad- looking crew as at Ventersburg. We had then counted on being out of the country long before the rains came, and it required time for us to become reconciled to the fact that the rains were on, and we were still in South Africa. We found the Ayrshire men in a very bad temper next morning. They had been ordered to stay out beside the kopje all night on picket; and heated arguments about the captured gun, and our respective shares in the engagement, took the place of our usual friendly rivalry.

De Wet, having once again escaped us, turned west to Rheebokfontein, near Bothaville, and our column went east to the railway to get supplies.

Carthage farm, our last camping place before the line was reached, will always be memorable for the badness of the water with which we made tea. It was taken from a small, stagnant pond, where all the horses and mules of the column had watered. After boiling, there were two inches of sediment at the bottom of a dixie, and some chickens put on to boil were really roasted in hot mud.

We struck the railway at Vredefort Road, and trekked south to Honning Spruit, where the convoy got replenished. Here nine or ten men, who applied, got their discharge, and left to go home. There, too, Vereker left us. We had regarded him at first as a terror of a man, for a fierce glance of his great eyes was enough to make one feel as wooden as a gate-post; but later, in his more genial moods, he used to close one and look quite benign. During the Bethlehem fighting we saw him riding or walking about giving orders and encouragement regardless of his personal safety, and he soon inspired us with confidence in his coolness, judgment, and ability. His departure was regretted by all. Only Volunteer officers were now left with us—Captain Coats and Lieutenants Connal and Marshall with our company, and Lieutenant Bolton with the 17th.

On 1st November we moved out from Honning Spruit once more to take up the chase. Simultaneously Knox with De Lisle started from Kopjes. The afternoon was very wet, and the roads soon became soft and heavy. We were rearguard, and got late into camp, having almost to carry some ammunition carts for the last few miles. Next day the rain continued, and we did not march till mid-day. With our improvised shelters some of us now managed wonderfully well, and a new-corner would have been surprised to see four of us during the storm sitting in one, playing whist on the dry side of a numnah.

On the morning of the 3rd we were near Rheebokfontein, and Le Gallais made his dispositions, expecting a fight. But the Boers had gone, and their trail pointed to Bothaville.

On the 4th, the 17th Company, under Bolton, sighted and pursued a party of the enemy and a small convoy which had broken to the right, but Le Gallais was following the tracks of De Wet's heavy guns, and would not be diverted.

At mid-day on the th we halted at Doornhult, Knox being ten miles in the rear, while Le Gallais went forward in the direction of Bothaville with 200 men and two guns. He found the town unoccupied, but the Boers were in strength on the other side of the Valsch, south of the town, and opened fire on him with two field guns and a porn-porn. The patrol held its ground till dark, when the waggons were brought up and parked in the town square, and the Mounted Infantry, crossing the river at a drift, occupied the hills where the Boer guns had been.

Very early on the morning of 6th November we were all astir, expecting, however, only a long march, for it was not doubted but that the Boers would pursue their usual tactics and retire before us. Leaving camp about 4.30 a.m., we crossed the Valsch, and opened out to our marching positions. The 5th MA., under Major Lean, formed the screen and advance guard. Then came the main body, 8th M.I., under Major Ross, and three guns of U Battery, commanded by Major Taylor. We were flank-guard to the guns, on the right. The screen had proceeded about two miles when they came on a Boer picket of eight, all asleep. Their capture was silently effected, and the advance continued. About a mile farther on, a grand surprise awaited our troops. Behind a farm, on the top of a gentle rise, lay the whole of De Wet's force, numbering about moo men, with guns and a large convoy. Depending on their outpost to bring news of our advance, many of them were still in bed, while others were quietly preparing breakfast. A volley from Major Lean's men roused them all to action. Many rushed to take cover in a big horse corral and behind two water dams, in the out-buildings, or among the waggons of the laager, whence they at once began to return the fire with interest. The artillerymen ran to their guns, and many went to try and herd in the transport animals which were out grazing. Those who could get to their horses just fled.

Our gunners, when the shooting began, galloped up to within 400 yards of the Boers, and at once came under a heavy fire. Two guns unlimbered behind the main farm building, which had been seized and was still held by a few men of the advance guard, and the other gun galloped off to the left. Colonel Le Gallais and his staf, with Major Ross, rode up to view the situation from the farm. Entering the house, Major Ross went to a window overlooking the Boer position, where he offered a splendid target to the Boers. A volley from them shattered the glass and woodwork, and the gallant Major fell severely wounded. Colonel Le Gallais entering a few seconds later met with the same fate.

We had cantered up in line with the guns, some 200 or 300 yards on their right, and soon got our share of attention from the Boers in the big corral and on the dams. We dismounted and emptied our magazines at them, each man just standing beside his horse; then we rode forward other 200 yards. Again dismounting, the horses were sent back some distance, and we advanced a little farther, crawling from ant-heap to ant-heap. Meantime the 7th M.I. had extended out on the left, and the 8th were up in force in the centre and about the garden of the house. The Boers got one gun and a porn-porn into action, the latter directed at us; but though the shooting was excellent, few burst, and only a horse or two were hit.

Stirring scenes were now being enacted all along the line. The guns, still under a heavy fire, were pumping shells into the convoy and amongst the Boer artillery, which they soon silenced, preventing them also from limbering up and getting away. Eight hundred Boers who had mounted and fled at the first attack were now seen returning, and commenced to press an attack on both flanks. The big half went to the left, and were engaging the 7th Corps; but about 300 came galloping round on our flank, either with the intention of getting in between us and the drift and surrounding us, or of attacking the convoy. To meet this movement Captain Coats now ordered both companies back to their horses— we were loath to leave even the little cover afforded by the ant-heaps—and extending the sixty of us till our frontage was over a mile, led us out on the right to hold the Boers in check. So far our casualties amounted to two men of the 17th Company wounded, and about ten horses hit. A curious accident happened to a favourite pony of Lieutenant Marshall. When dismounting after the first rush he thought she was hit, but could see no signs of a wound. Not till night was it discovered that a bullet had struck the saddle behind the buckle of the stirrup leather, passed below her backbone, and out through the saddle at the other side. The wound swelled when the saddle was removed, but was better in a week.

As we moved forward in extended order to meet the Boers, we came upon a few of our men hard pressed, who had been out on our flank since the beginning of the engagement Four of them, lying hidden in the long grass beside a wire fence, which extended across the line of the Boer advance, had already almost emptied their bandoliers. Another was from horseback, and for a while he was the only one we' ould see. As the Boers, skirmishing back and forwards, were also firing from their horses, we thought at first that he was one of the enemy, and nearly shot him. The Boers now attacked with great vigour. Some crept forward among the grass to short range, while others, moving about on their horses, galloped in here and there to find a weak spot. The ground was so flat that good shooting was difficult, and it allowed the Boers to get closer with impunity. The situation was fast becoming serious. Our numbers were so small in comparison with the Boers that we could not be very sparing with our fire, and the ammunition was running dangerously short. Our spirits were not improved when word reached us about Le Gallais and Ross having been wounded, nor when it was rumoured that a gun had been lost. There was no sign of our ammunition cart coming up, though orderlies had been despatched several times for it, and in desperation some of the men ran back to get a few rounds from those holding the horses.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the field, matters were not very much better. Certainly rumour was wrong about the gun, but its capture was only prevented by the magnificent dash of an officer and six men of the Suffolk M.L, and the stubborn courage of the gunners, who stood to their post to the last man. On the left flank the Boers were attacking most vigorously, and in the centre the close range fire was telling heavily on both sides. Two Boers in a pig-stye shot several of our men at forty-eight yards, and were not silenced till a shell was sent into it.

About half-past eight, to our great relief, an orderly turned up with 1200 rounds of ammunition in his feed-bag, and half an hour later Knox and De Lisle arrived on- the scene with reinforcements. With their help the Boers were driven from the flanks, and those at the farm surrounded. Preparations were made for a bayonet charge, but at 10.30 the white flag went up. Not a man stirred till the Boers came out and laid down their arms; then great cheering all round the laager announced that the surrender had taken place.

Seven guns were captured, and thirteen of the waggons taken contained shells and small-arm ammunition, black powder, and dynamite. The Boers lost heavily in killed and wounded, and about a hundred prisoners were taken. De Wet and Steyn left at the first alarm, pretending that they were going to lead flank attacks, but prisoners say they were not seen again during the day. The losses on our side, including Colonel Le Gallais, who died next morning, were three officers and eight men killed, and thirty-three officers and men wounded.

Great praise was given to all the units of Le Gallais's force engaged that day, and many individual men got special mention. Amongst them was our grand old doctor, who seemed to bear a charmed life while attending to the wounded at the farm. We gave him three cheers when we heard of it at Kroonstad, and he showed himself then, as always, ready with a neat speech. "Thank you, my lads, thank you!" he said; "I am proud of it for the honour to your company, for the honour to the Scottish Yeomanry."

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