From Kingston to Durban.

          No Volunteer Regiment in the country showed more enthusiasm than did the East Surrey Battalions upon receiving the official invitation to form a Service Company to co-operate with the Regulars in the South African War. Our country needed our help, and we were only too proud to offer it. Names were quickly handed in, and soon each of the four Volunteer Battalions had enough men ready to compose their respective sections. After a medical examination at the Regimental Depot, Colonel Phillips finally appointed us members of the East Surrey Regiment.
          January 22, 1900, saw the muster of the Company at Kingston, where they were quartered for a brief training while being fitted with the necessary khaki for the field. Not time was lost, and the men were fully occupied with route marches, bayonet exercises, and acquiring knowledge and practice in all the evolutions necessary to a soldier in active warfare.
          The weather was extremely cold, and the drill was interrupted on one or two days by heavy falls of snow. This time, however, was not wasted, the officers and non-commissioned officers taking advantage of it to instruct us in military laws, scouting, &c.
          At length the Company was reported complete, and very shortly afterwards we received orders to be ready to embark on the S.S. "Tintagel Castle" on the 10th of March.
          Dinners were given in honour of the Company by the 3rd Volunteer Battalion East Surrey Regt., and Lord Wandsworth, at which some complimentary speeches were made, and the best wishes expressed four our success.
          A short furlough was granted to the men, which we all made the most of, afterwards mustering on March 9. Friends were admitted to the barracks during the day, and several stayed the night, none of us who were leaving for the front thinking of turning in.
          Early on Saturday (March 10) we had a good square meal, and then fell in on the parade ground about 4.30 a.m., 116 strong, under the command of Captain Collyer and Lieutenants Longstaff and Brooks.
          All being reported correct, we shook hands with those who had gathered in the barracks square, and forming fours, marched out of the depot. At the gate we were met by a large crowd armed with torches, fireworks, and flags, who cheered again and again, and quickly broke through our ranks to bid a last farewell to those dear to them. The whole march to Kingston Station was in fact one triumphal procession, and, considering the early hour, the number of people who had collected brought clearly to our minds how much those at Kingston appreciated what we were willing to do for our country. There was no rowdyism, but on all sides, from friends and stranger alike, to those in our ranks who belonged to Kingston, and equally to those from other places, a sincere and hearty "God-speed, and a safe return" was wished.
          At the station the enthusiasm was at its height, and the valiant efforts of the band were almost drowned in the continuous cheering. The men had hard work to reach the platform, but this was eventually accomplished with the aid of the police. The baggage was quickly packed in the train, and all aboard, we moved out of the station about 5 a.m. The band struck up "God Save the Queen," the crowd cheered louder than ever, and we began our journey for the distant battleground with the liveliest impressions of a heavy send-off a soldier could wish for.
          After picking up the Middlesex Service Company at Hounslow, we had a quick run, and arrived at Southampton about 8.30 a.m. During the journey down we had, on previously received orders, carefully packed out equipment in the valise and attached a label thereto, so that on arrival it could, with such things as would not be required on the voyage, be stowed away.
          A line was formed, and rifles and bayonets, helmets, and valises with equipments, and one of our two kit bags, were rapidly collected and stowed in their respective storerooms. We were then marched on board with our sea kit-bags and overcoats - the only things left in our possession - and we were told off, in dozens, to the messes where we were to make ourselves at home for the next three weeks.
          This done, we were free to go on the quay to have the last few words with those who had come down to Southampton to see us off. Other companies arrived in quick succession, and they were dealt with in the same orderly and quiet manner. Shortly after 2 p.m. all had arrived, and every soldier had to take his place at the mess table. The roll was called, we were reported all present, and were then allowed on deck. Here we seized on every available spot from deck to topmast, whence to get the best and longest view of those on the quay.
          At 2.45 p.m. the last gangway was run ashore, the ropes were thrown off, and the vessel moved slowly away amidst cheers that only a British assembly can give.
          An enthusiastic cornet-player strikes up "Rule Britannia," in which all on board join, losing for a moment the sorrows of parting in their pride at being reckoned fit to fight for that Britannia for which so many noble men had fought before. Then followed the National Anthem, getting fainter as we left the land behind. A last wave of the cap to those who are dear to us before they vanish from our sight - for how long none can tell - and all the bonds that held us are broken, and we are off, with thousands of miles to travel before we shall again set foot in dear old England.
          For some time we remained on deck watching the coastline growing fainter and fainter, until it vanished in the dusk of evening. Then we went below to tea.
          The weather was superb. A cloudless sky, smooth sea, and a fair wind behind us, which allowed us to set sail, no doubt thus increasing our speed. Even the Bay, that terror to landsmen, smiled upon us, and afforded us a comparatively smooth run across its usually troubled waters. The catering for the troops was as good as could be wished for - and much better than we expected. In fact, it was practically third class passengers' fare. After the first day or two what little sickness there was disappeared, and we all settled down to have as comfortable a time as possible. Musical instruments had been brought on board by members of different companies, and every evening an impromptu concert was organised. The days were spent in sufficient exercise to keep men fit, and instruction in the duties of a soldier in the field, and in the penalties for the various serious offences. Every man had his hammock and two blankets for the night, the hooks on which to sling them being fixed over the respective messes. These were drawn from the hammock room by the mess orderlies between 6 and 7 p.m., and returned at reveille. The extensive washhouses and offices were well looked after by the Engineer detachments on board.
          All meals were drawn by the orderlies at the cookhouse door, in tins provided for that purpose. The tables were supplied with plates, glasses, &c., these, when not in use, being kept in a rack fitted up for that purpose. The whole vessel was lighted with electricity, each mess having a powerful lamp. The decks were regularly scrubbed by fatigue parties told off for the duty, and everything was kept as bright and clean as a new pin.
          Land was sighted for the first time after leaving England, early on the morning of the 15th March; the snow-capped peak of Teneriffe towering above the bank of clouds that hung round its base; and shortly after noon we came to anchor at Las Palmas. This was the first of foreign lands most of us had ever seen, and we were proportionately interested in it. The town, situated upon the slope of a hill, with the low, white houses plentifully interspersed with palms and other trees, and here and there a dome or spire rising above the common level, with the ships in the harbour, formed an extremely beautiful picture. Behind the port rose a succession of flat-topped hills, higher and higher towards the interior, until their summits were lost in the clouds. Away to the right a sandy isthmus connected an almost detached bank of foliage with the mainland, and along this a tramway was laid.
          Of course our view of the town was taken from the deck of the vessel, as no soldiers were allowed ashore. The wreck of the "Denton Grange" was still grounded closer in to land, with one or two traction engines, which ought to have been doing good service at the Cape, rusting on her deck.
          Immediately on our arrival numerous bumboats surrounded the vessel, and a lively trade commenced. Bananas, oranges, and cigars rapidly changed hands, and most of us laid in a stock of fruit to last over the fortnight of salt water that was to follow. The boys who dive for money in the parts also found plenty of patrons.
          After a six hours' stay for coaling, the "Tintagel Castle" again weighed anchor, and just as the lights of the town began to twinkle in the distance we steamed away. The weather continued fine, though the heat became rather trying to us novices. Cape Verde was visible for a short time on the eastern horizon on Sunday, the 18th March. As we neared the tropics some of the wonders of the flying fish, shoals of benitas, and a shark or two, as well as that beautiful jellyfish known as the nautilus. A canvas salt-water bath was rigged up by the crew for the benefit of the troops, and many men were glad to take advantage of it morning and evening. Sports were started, and between the intervals of drill frequent contests took place between champions of rival companies, affording a great deal of amusement to the onlookers. Our men held their own well in these trials. Orders were issued that no socks or shoes were to be worn, and in consequence a few of us suffered from blisters, though in the majority of cases this practice hardened the feet for the coming trying marches. Those who wished it were inoculated against enteric by the ship's doctor, Dr. W. McLean, who was assisted by Dr. L. B. Betts. This caused some of the men to feel a bit "seedy" for a few days, but all got through without serious results. Awnings were now spread over the decks, and these afforded plentiful protection from the sun.
          On the 21st March the equator was crossed. King Neptune, though rather chary in his visits lately, was good enough to honour us with his presence, and baptized a fair number. He arrived in the evening, but it was too late to perform the ceremony that night, so it was put off to the following afternoon. The sea ruler boarded us in good time, attended by his train in various grotesque costumes, and took his seat before the bath, with Britannia on his left. His myrmidons then seized everyone pointed out, and hauled them before his throne, where they were lathered with paste, and shaved with a two-foot razor. A plentiful supply of powder in the shape of flour was then administered, after which the victim was ducked three times in the bath. A certificate was then presented to him, showing that he had been baptized a son of Neptune. Just at the end of the ceremony someone discovered Kruger hid in the washhouse, and he was quickly hauled forth and subjected to the ordeal, though he strongly resented the shaving and water.
          But the voyage had its shadows as well as its sunlight. On Friday, 23rd, the enjoyment was marred by the death of a private in the Somerset Volunteer Company. He was buried early next morning by a clergyman who was a passenger on board. Nearly all the men were present, although attendance was voluntary, and the service was most impressive, as amongst all the concourse of rough-and-ready men not a murmur interrupted the voice of the minister. The "last post" sounded, the Union Jack was lifted, and the first amongst us to lay down his life for his country found a resting-place in the deep.
          But a soldier has no time to think of past sorrows. The routine of life on board quickly dimmed our recollections of this scene, and we were soon as cheerful as ever.
          On Sunday, 25th, Captain Collyer read prayers in the morning, after which we were free for the day. A strong headwind sprang up, which caused the vessel to pitch and roll considerably. The ss. "Norman" was sighted, and some signaling took place, but they had no fresh news to tell us. The following five days were spent in the usual manner, the weather being fine.

SS, "Tintagel Castle."
          At daybreak, on Saturday, the 31st of March, the long-looked-forward-to land appeared. The decks were promptly crowded, and every man strained his eyes on the yet far-distant coastline. As we drew nearer the rugged peaks that overshadow the Cape Town became distinct, and towering prominently in their midst the world-famed Table Mountain. By 9 a.m. we were at anchor in the bay, and every available pair of field-glasses was intently scanning the surroundings. The anchorage was crowded with transports, nearly every vessel of any size bearing on its side, in large figures, the number denoting that she belonged to this branch of the service. Some enthusiastic anglers were to be seen leaning over their side patiently waiting for a simple-minded fish to take their bait.
          We lay off in the bay until 11 a.m. next day, when a quay became vacant, and we ran alongside. Five companies immediately disembarked, and the luggage was landed. Grapes were to be had on the wharf at 6d. a helmet-full; and this we took advantage of.
          Cape Town lies directly at the foot of Table Mountain, whose wall-like sides rises almost perpendicularly over it to a great height. On the south side, mountains of smaller size extend to the end of the Cape of Good Hope. Away to the north and east the land is comparatively flat at the sea edge, but some high mountain ranges can be seen further inland. The place is built for some distance along the coast, and is of considerable extent. Many large and handsome buildings are visible, rising above the ordinary level.
          On Monday, 2nd April, we bade "Good-bye" to the ss. "Tintagel Castle," and landing for the first time on South African soil with our baggage, marched to a distant wharf, and embarked on the Union Steamship Company's liner "Goorkha," bound for Durban with about 700 men on board, and at daybreak next morning sailed out of harbour. This vessel is a fine twin screw steamer, with ample accommodation for passengers and officers on the upper deck. The troops were quartered on the lower deck, which had been well fitted up for our reception. In the "Tintagel Castle" the East Surreys had been messed right forward; here we were right aft. The food, though not so good as that previously supplied us, was varied and plentiful, the arrangements for drawing the same as before.
          Hence to Durban we had interesting glimpses of the country in whose interest we had come to fight. On Wednesday, 4th April, we cam to anchor at 6.30 a.m. off the town of Aliwal South, or Mossel Bay. The town is prettily situated on a hillside in the western curve of the bay, and moving about the roads we caught our first glimpse of the Cape wagon drawn by sixteen oxen. The inhabitants sent an invitation to land, but time was too short to allow us to accept their hospitality. We were the first troops who had called there during the war, and I expect they wanted a closer inspection of us. A few came on board, and before we left a welcome and generous present of fruits, biscuits, and cake was sent aboard for us. At 3 p.m. we weighed anchor and steamed off for Port Elizabeth. During the night we ran into a fog, and for some hours were at a standstill, hardly able to see twenty yards off. For a few minuets a large steamer was visible, passing us very closely, but she quickly vanished. Shortly after 11 a.m. the mist cleared off, and we found ourselves just off Algoa Bay. We ran in and came to anchor at 11.30 a.m. on the 5th, amongst the dozen or so of steamers already rising there.
          Two dirty niggers had come aboard at Cape Town for Port Elizabeth. So far they had been clothed in the filthiest of rags, but as we came to, we were surprised to discover them opening their bundles in an unoccupied horsebox. Off went the rags, and on went clean underclothing, new flannel trousers of a gaudy pattern, coat to match, and a smart felt hat. Then the troops cheered. It was afterwards reported that one of these blacks had three, and the other two, wives at this port.
          We discharged a quantity of cargo during the day into lighters, and at 9 p.m. again got under weigh, and arrived at East London at 9.30 the following morning, coming to anchor in the roads. There is no harbour here for large vessels, the only shelter being the small mouth of the river, protected by breakwaters. The buildings lying on the east bank are very scattered, and some of them of considerable size. To the east of the town a large camp was pitched, and on the hills we could see some small bodies of cavalry manoeuvring. We landed the Oxford Light Infantry Company here, a tug coming alongside, and the men being lowered into it in a basket, four at a time. The sea was very choppy, causing the tug to pitch heavily, and in consequence there was little sickness. The Oxfords left the "Goorkha" amidst much cheering on both sides.
          We lay here until 9 p.m., and then weighed anchor and sailed for the vessel's final destination. We were close in to the shore, and had a good view of the coast during the day, arriving at Durban at 6 p.m. on Sunday, the 8th of April, our voyage finished. Next morning a tug with a barge in tow came off, and we all embarked thereon, and ran into port.
          Durban possesses no bay in which to shelter the large amount of shipping which collects here. The river-mouth, though of considerable size, is far too shallow for vessels of large tonnage, and all the traffic is done by barges. Breakwaters have been erected to protect the lighter craft and form a small harbour; and here our tug ran alongside, and landed us at 1.30 p.m. We had no opportunity of seeing the town, no man being allowed to leave the ranks; at 2.30 a train of cattle and goods trucks ran on to the quay, and on this we embarked, and with a last glimpse at the sea turned our faces northward to the front.


© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.