A Disappointment. — Life at Van Reenen’s.


          Our joy can be better imagined than described when orders arrived for us to leave this hot-bed of officialism. This alone would, at any time, have brought forth cheers, but the fact that we were homeward bound completed our happiness.
          Late on Sunday night the orders arrived, an on Monday October 8th, we embarked on the mail train and arrived Volksrust, where we camped for the night at the headquarters of our battalion. In the morning we early astir and loaded up the waggons, after which we fell in. Major Pearce, now in command of the East Surreys, made a short but very complimentary speech on the work we had performed, and wished us a speedy journey home. We then marched to the station and entrained, leaving Volksrust by the mail at 11 a.m. We ran through the Laing’s Nek tunnel and over the familiar scene where we had watched the Boers from the heights of Ingogo, and after some time pulled up at Newcastle. Our stay here is short and soon we are steaming southward with all speed.
          After a run of twenty-one hours through some of the most historic places in South Africa, we reach Pietermaritzburg at 8 a.m., and forming up, march into camp. The tents arrived and are soon pitched, and we settle down for what we imagine to be our last few days on Natal soil.
          The following day we went down to the stores to draw our kitbags. Here a disgusting condition of affairs was discovered. Instead of the well-filled bags we had left, containing useful and necessary articles (chiefly private property) of clothing for our homeward voyage, we found our bags. Some, indeed, appeared full, but the owner was quickly undeceived when he pulled out half a dozen militia tunics. Out of the whole company not ten received their bags back intact. All the rest had been ransacked by unscrupulous thieves, who, afraid to go to the front, remained at base to despoil those men who were doing the real work of their country in the field.

View of Van Reenen's
View of Van Reenen's

          It is a decided disgrace that the British Army cannot look after its soldiers’ belongings. Hundreds of men were kept at Pietermaritzburg doing guards and other duties more or less unnecessary. Yet not one man could be spared to look after the few necessaries the fighters possessed, but were unable to take with them to the front.
          The quartermaster of the regiment had come down with us to see after our refitting, and we were, in consequence, all supplied with a new khaki uniform fit for landing in England. Other articles were procured for those in need of them, and our ammunition was collected.
          But our rejoicings were premature. On the evening of the 14th rumours were very strong that we were returning up-country. Of course such statements were laughed at at first, but the next day brought with it definite orders to return kitbags to stores, and draw the ammunition again. Our company was not the only one treated thus, some having travelled as far as Durban ere they received orders to return.
          Tuesday evening (15th), at 8.30 p.m., we fell in and marched to Pietermaritzburg Station, where we entrained together with the Durham Light Infantry, Dorset's, and Queen’s Volunteer Companies, for Ladysmith.
          The accommodation was inadequate, and as a result ten men were compressed into each compartment. For ordinary passengers this is full, but taking into consideration the fact that each man had his kit as well, the packing was very tight. We made the best of it, however, two getting into the racks, three on the floor, and the rest disposing themselves to the best advantage on the seats. A good deal of refreshment of the liquor order had been procured for this momentous occasion, and in consequence a lively night ensured, the singing being kept up into the small hours.
          Shortly after daybreak the train pulled up at Ladysmith Station, and we equipped ourselves expecting orders to disembark here. We were vastly surprised when we received directions to get our messtins, and were marched round to the back of the refreshment-room, where each man received a slice of bread of the “door-step” order, and a small amount of coffee. We then trooped back to our carriages to consume our dainty breakfast, and during this operation word was sent round that we were bound for Van Reenen’s Pass.
          The train journey was well worth making, up the branch of the railway towards Harrismith. The line climbs up the Drakensberg range at Van Reenen’s very similar to the way it ascends the mountain side at Laing’s Nek, and winds round the narrow ledges cut in the steep slopes at such a height that to look below almost makes you giddy, while overhead the frowning cliffs and riskily poised boulders appear to threaten the narrow shelf along which the train glides.
          The view, too, extends over many miles of country in all directions, and entrances the eye with its ever-changing variety.
          At length we swing round the highest of the narrow mountain ledges, and come in sight of a smooth plain over which we rattle to pull up at Van Reenen’s Station. We instantly detrain, and after lodging waggons, set out for the camp we have passed at the foot of the rough roadway that here climbs over the narrow nek between two colossal peaks.
          The town was the terminus of the Natal and of the Orange Free State Railways, but now I presume the traffic will be run right through. The white inhabitants of this important locality numbered at our arrival about a dozen in all. This is, of course, without the military force guarding the pass. The buildings consist of two stores, an hotel and the station erections, though I was later informed that, on paper, a great many imposing edifices had been erected. But these are at present invisible to the human eye.
          Our arrival in the camp released several details, who immediately left for the station, whence we had the pleasure of seeing them depart for their respective regiments later the same day. Our tents were pitched under the side of a large round hill that stood out like a great fortress, guarding the pass behind. Indeed it was a position of immense strength now that we were in possession of it, and before we left this place we added countless yards to the long narrow trenches which furrow its green sides.
          We were destined to stay here for many a long month, and to know the scenes of this neighbourhood as well as we did those of dear old England. We arrived at Van Reenen’s on October 17th, and the last of us left it on May 9th after a stay of all but seven months.
          It was, however, as healthy a spot as one could wish to have to spend an African summer in, being 5,500 feet above sea level. The air was crisp and bracing, and, though the thick wet mists troubled us somewhat, it was better than having to stand the intense heat of the lower lands, where fever was rampant. The views, too, were magnificent, and the beautiful scenery in the ravines which wound their way among the feet of the mountains was almost unsurpassable.
          These time-worn watercourses, which in some places plunged hundreds of feet below the base of the mountain, were covered, up their rocky sides, with dense shrubbery and trees, amidst which rose colossal boulders, grey and moss-grown with the ages that had passed since the torrent that now flows beneath them, first wore away the earth around their sides and exposed them to the assaults of the elements.
          But leave the grandeur of the scene and plunge through the thickets until the bed of the stream is reached. Here you will find a gentle rivulet splashing over the multitude of boulders that attempt to bar its passage at every turn, and filling the air with it murmur, which mingles with the hum of the insects. The verdant trees meet overhead, whilst creepers hang from the boughs in airy festoons, and through this scene the fierce sun rays filter, adding final touches to the waterfall in a thousand rainbow hues. In the shadow of the banks the maiden-hair and a thousand other ferns flourish in lavish profusion, together with flowers of every colour, while birds of gorgeous tints flit about this romantic paradise.
          Approach this retreat, however, after a heavy rainfall, and you find the purling stream changed into arranging torrent of sandy water, which sweeps over many of the boulders that before barred its passage, but now quiver and rock under its tempestuous rush, while branch and trunk are swept wildly past.
          But enough of the poetic beauty of this charming spot! We were here for a hard, practical purpose. Our mornings were spent, when not on guard, in working on the defences of the place, and many an hour of our labour was wasted on fortifications that the commandant afterwards found he had had put up in the wrong place. We then had the pleasure of destroying the results of our handiwork and beginning afresh elsewhere. Our men did every kind of defence work, fixing sangars and gun-pits, and anything else necessary.
          On November 7 General Hildyard came up to inspect the defences at Van Reenen’s. After he had been round the position he came to see our company. We were away from the rest of the occupying force, guarding an advanced part of the works. This officer had been in command of our brigade on our first arrival, but had afterwards received Divisional command. After asking Lieutenant Longstaff about the health of the men, he addressed the company in a few well-chosen words.
          He expressed his regret at our disappointment at being sent up to the front again when we were expecting a homeward move, but he added that the war was not over, and it was no use sending men home and having to send more out. The job had got to be finished, but he hoped it would not be long ere we were on our way to reap the reward we so richly deserved.
          The General added that we belonged to a regiment with a name, a favourite of his, which had done some hard work out here. He was greatly pleased with us while he was our immediate commander, and since he had been removed he had heard a very favourable report of our doings. This kindly speech was much appreciated by the Company.
          Owing to the energy and generosity of our officers who supplied the requisites, we were able to enjoy a variety of sports in our spare time. Football and cricket were the chief games, and in these we had many a tough contest with the other companies and artillery. The teams were chosen from the best of players among us, and I am glad to say our men managed to more than hold their own.
          One of the most noticeable features of the routine here was the system of “false alarms.” They were, indeed, false alarms. About a week before the intended surprise came off we were informed of the day allotted for this important test. Two days before, we would hear of the hour when the bugle would sound, so when the time actually did arrive the men were already dressed, and all but occupying their alarm positions!
          The commanding officer would then ride round twirling his fly-whisk in his gloved hand, and secretly congratulating himself on the smartness of his force. I’m afraid if a real alarm had sounded, he would have received a very unpleasant surprise in the amount of time required by the men to occupy their respective posts; but, fortunately, we were only turned out once, and then the Boers never came.
          One of these false alarms id us a good turn. The bugle sounded, the tents were struck, the artillery galloped out, and the infantry doubled to their respective positions in the usual smart and orderly manner. Then an inspecting officer made his rounds. Inch by inch, during the long months that we had been here, we had been lengthening out our deep-ploughed trenches, and now they extended here, there, and everywhere. Miles of them hand grown under our industrious hands, yet never a man had been added to our scanty party occupying this important position. On the other hand, invalids had been constantly sent down country, and six men had been detached to learn and take charge of the Maxim gun, which there had been no proper complement to work. The consequence was that, on this great occasion of the exhibition of our chief’s genius, it was found that each man had roughly about two hundred yards of trenches to defend!
          The guards, too, were so thickly dotted round us that no man had more than one night off duty at a time; a state of things that tried us to the utmost. Those who came off guard at daybreak were compelled to do the three hours’ fatigue ordered for each morning. On what I might term “feast days,” i.e., the anniversary of any fight that had occurred out here, or on some other occult occasion, it was usually deemed likely that the Boers would seize the opportunity to attack us, and double guards were posted in consequence. This meant that some of us enjoyed two or three nights out of bed in succession, and I remember on one of these trying times, those who were lucky enough to get a night’s rest stood at arms at 3.30 a.m., as usual, when we found that out of the company of about sixty strong, eight ranks and file had occupied the camp during the dark hours, and these, together with the cooks and officers’ servants (five men), were all who could reinforce, if necessary, those on guard.
          The conclusion eventually arrived at was that our position was a great deal larger than was at all necessary. In consequence a fresh plan of fortifications was drawn up, and we received orders to destroy all gunpits and trenches that would afford cover to the enemy. This we found somewhat easier work than the construction of them.
           While on this advanced post our fellows had several opportunities of increasing and varying their diet by annexing sundry calves and sheep belonging to the large herds and flocks of commandeered stock driven through the pass on their way down country. Herds numbering six and seven thousand, and flocks of sheep and goats to the extent of twelve thousand and over, frequently passed through the camp.
          As these great masses of animals passed our line of tents, which was pitched by the roadside, three or four men would charge into the midst of them, heedless of the curses and entreaties of the half dozen niggers in charge, and, seizing on calf and goat, haul it, wriggling and kicking, into camp, where it was promptly secured while its captors went in pursuit of fresh prey.
          After one of these herds had passed through, too, sundry strays were always found wandering about the neighbourhood, and these also were driven in for our use. It was no easy job to secure them, and the fresh meat enjoyed did not always fully repay the trouble we were put to in obtaining it.
          Bloyd’s Farm, an extensively cultivated expanse of ground, part of which was occupied by a large orchard, was frequently visited by our men, who returned heavily laden with apples, raspberries, peaches, &c., which would otherwise have been left to rot, as the Boers had destroyed the dwelling and nobody occupied the place. The farm was, of course, out of bounds for us, but bounds exist not where ripe fruit is in question, and we were quite willing to take our chance of being caught.
          There was, however, a dark side to our picture. Shortly after our arrival we heard that an old comrade, Private Levens, had passed away at Pietermaritzburg Hospital, and ere many days had passed Private C. Wood was also reported dead from enteric fever. Both these men were old and well-known comrades, and greatly liked and respected by the Company, and it was, indeed, a great shock when we heard of their sad end, after braving successfully the many hardships of those severe marches. Every man, I can truly say, regretted the loss of these old companions who did their duty in the field with us like true soldiers and men.
          The general health of the company, however, greatly improved owing to the salubrious atmosphere, the ample and pure water supply, and sufficient exercise; and though several were in hospital at different times with light complaints (some with unromantic disease of "“itch"”, they soon rejoined us and resumed their duties.





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