From Christmas to June.


          CHRISTMAS DAY arrived at last to find us still doing duty at Van Reenan’s Pass. The officers did everything in their power to make this festival as pleasant a one as such a day could be away from home.
          Sports were organizes, and held on the level stretch by the camp. They proved, in spite of the summer heat, a great success, several of the prizes being very closely competed for. Our men managed to capture one or two awards; but we had some dangerous opponents in the detachment of Natal Carbineers, who were here for scouting purposes.
          Lieutenant Longstaff obtained sufficient green peas and new potatoes to go round the company, and also the necessary material for puddings; and these, with the roast beef and beer, made for us an excellent dinner.
          The evening was devoted to a smoking concert in the engine-cleaning sheds at the station. The place was profusely decorated with shrubbery and the flags, and presented a really civilised appearance in this desert locality. Some very good songs were sung by different members of the garrison, and duly appreciated; and so ended a very enjoyable day.
          The sports were continued on Boxing Day, when, in addition to our own, several competitions were arranged for the natives and Hindoos. The Kaffirs were set at their favourite pastime of eating, and the Indians exhibited some excellent wrestling.
          The new year was waited up for by such men as were on duty, but those of us who had the night in could not spare our chance of rest to keep awake for this time-honoured purpose.
          We were not altogether forgotten by people at home, and our officer received, and had read to us, several letters wishing the company the compliments of the season. These kindly words were greatly appreciated by us, so many miles away. Those who have spent a Christmas out of England, especially on such an errand as ours, will best understand our feeling on receiving such tokens of remembrance.
          On Wednesday, the 9th of January, the monotony of our garrison life was broken. Three Boers had been captured the day before, digging in what appeared to be a filled-in trench. The scouts prodded with a stick and discovered a hard substance a few inches below the surface. They immediately sent into camp and reported their find, and all night a calvary patrol kept watch over the place. At 7.45 a.m. a force of men, fully armed and supported by the artillery, marched out to the spot, followed by two waggons with the necessary excavating implements.
          A small party was detached and sent in advance, extending out some little distance beyond us, and then we got to work. In a very few minuets a box had been unearthed and lifted out. An examination of the contents showed that we had alighted upon buried ammunition. The men needed no encouragement, and in a marvellously short space of time twenty-eight boxes, containing about 25,000 rounds, had been exhumed and loaded on the transport.
Discovery of Buried Ammunition
Discovery of Buried Ammunition
          We examined carefully the surrounding plain for some distance, but failed to discover further signs of hidden stores. The spot where we had been digging had the appearance of a long trench hastily filled in. Beside it lay the fragment remains of a horse, evidently killed there for a mark. We left the ground as we found it, save that we took the ammunition away, and possibly some more brother Boers may come hunting there one of these times, in which case we wish them joy.
          Soon after this day the construction of block-houses was commenced by civilian engineers, who arrived with a large gang of niggers from Ladysmith. The first completed was one protecting the station, and as soon as it was ready for occupation, the whole of our advanced position was abandoned and a much smaller radius was occupied. Here several other block-houses were commenced, but some time elapsed before they were completed.
          We had now gradually glided into the rainy season. Very heavy thunderstorms became frequent, accompanied by deluges of rain and large hailstorms. The lightening was fearfully vivid, and left one dazzled for some moments ere he could again perceive the objects around him. Showers fell daily, usually about sunset. Owing to the extent of the view, we could see the storm clouds hovering round the summits of Platberg, Nelson’s Kop, Rensburg Kop, and other mountains at some distance, long before the first drops fell on our tents. Now and again continued falls of rain occurred, lasting several days, and growing longer as the season advanced. Towards the finish, we endured the longest downpour we had known, rain falling almost incessantly for sixteen days.
          January 24th brought us the news of the Queen’s death. It was for a time disbelieved, but the rumour was confirmed, much to our regret. We had our duty to do, however, to King Edward VII., a little notice was taken of this national loss until the papers brought it home to us more clearly a month later.
          By the end of January we had occupied our fresh positions round the foot of the pass. Our new camp had now to be entrenched, and we were kept constantly employed in this work. Wire entanglements, too, were fixed up round the entire length of the occupied area.
          For some reason unknown to us the commanding officer deemed it politic to prohibit any man leaving this enclosed position without a pass. After a while further order was issued preventing soldiers from one block-house entering the entanglement which surrounded another without permission, and no man was to leave his camp after “retreat” — 6 p.m. Such edicts were far too deep for us ordinary privates to understand, but we found it a trifle trying to be so tied down.
          Sangar building on the edge of a ravine is risky work. The large boulders which have to be rolled into position on the slope sometimes break away, and no human power can stop them as they bounding down the steep cliff. This is very nice entertainment in the ordinary way, but some of us got a shock that decidedly damped our ardour in the pursuit of sport.
          A large heavy rock was being shifted into position on a very steep slant where we were building a breastwork. We were easing it down very successfully, when a little too much pressure was brought to bear. Those in front had just time to get clear when the large mass went bumping and grinding down the slope, increasing in speed at every bounce. Near the bottom it cannoned a large projecting boulder, and sprang outwards, clearing the bushes overhanging the small mountain stream that flowed along the bed of the ravine, and landing on the farther bank. Just as we were congratulating ourselves that no one was hurt, a couple of heads appeared amongst the branches, politely desiring to know “What’s a-coming off?”
          The stone had only just cleared our fellows as they bent at their washing, and had landed within arm’s length on the other side. This was deemed too dangerous a game to play at, and very few boulders had the chance to break away after that.
          On March 2 the line of blockhouses defending Van Reenan’s Pass was occupied. The larger part of the East Surrey Company, with a field gun, was now withdrawn. The remaining men, composed chiefly of the first section, occupied the blockhouse at the extreme left of the line, but some were afterwards drafted to another fort.
          The rest of our company left Van Reenen’s at 8.45 a.m. on the morning of the 2nd for Besters, a small locality on the railway above Ladysmith, where we were due to arrive shortly after noon. It was discovered, however, at our first halt to water horses, that the wrong road had been taken, and in consequence we were some miles out of our way. The officer, nevertheless, decided to keep to the present track, and we resumed the tramp. Soon after midday we again came to a halt to eat our dinner. The rations having been sent down by train, and in consequence there being nothing to eat, this can be reckoned as a lost opportunity.
          One or two of our men employed the time making a passage across a spruit, some ten yards wide and nearly knee-deep, which lay directly in our road. When we re-started, these endeavours to keep dry-footed were proved to be useless, for round a corner a little further on, a much wider and deeper part of the stream confronted us, and through this we were obliged to wade.
          An hour or so afterwards the officer in charge decided that our men were not in a fit condition to keep up with the artillery, and he ordered the latter to go in advance, following, shortly afterwards, himself, and leaving Colour-Sergeant Cox to get the company in as soon as possible.
          Needless to say the halts now became more frequent, but we managed to keep the artillery in sight, and eventually reached Besters at 7 p.m., tired, footsore, and hungry. Owing to the mistake in the roads the march had been lengthened out to close on twenty-six miles, a distance long enough to try troops in the pink of condition, and doubly hard to us after weeks without any marching exercise.
          Tents were pitched and tea appeared at half-past seven, dinner arriving an hour later. This disposed of, we all gladly turned in. Next day the tramp was continued, a couple of hours being done before breakfast. Now we had the pleasure of marching through bog-and most of the time, which necessitated four meant being left behind to help the Scotch cart containing our baggage, whenever it stuck.
          An extremely trying day this proved owing to the bad ground. Twice we forded the Klip River, and at 2 p.m. arrived at Tin-Town fairly done up. Here we went into huts. The rest was extended till the following afternoon, the 4th March, and then only a short distance was covered, the company pitching camp at Lancers’ Nek, five miles outside Ladysmith.
          The roads for one day improved, and the march to Dewdrop, a distance of twelve miles, was easily accomplished. The bivouac was made close to Clydesdale Farm, a place famous for the fact that a Boer hospital was established there during the siege of Ladysmith. We passed the foot of Spion Kop, too, noticing the two monuments that preserve the memory of our gallant men who fell on this fatal hill, standing out plainly on its summit.
          Rain came on during the night and continued far into the next morning, spoiling the roads for marching purposes. The convoy was frequently in trouble, and only reached the halting place an hour after the company. Next day the last march was made to the Upper Tugela, the place we were to garrison for a short time. The transport was again often in difficulties owing to the bad weather, and one of the waggons we were obliged to abandon, the contents being distributed amongst the rest. Our destination was reached at 12.30 p.m., and we pitched camp for a permanent residence. This place is a very fine one, as it contains a court-house, prison, police quarters, hotel, bakery, post-office, and several other buildings. The Tugela was scarcely 300 yards from the camp, and its waters tempted some to bathe therein. The stream was very swift, and our fellows had their work cut out to swim against the current. Bathing was, in consequence, forbidden until the river went down, as it was considered dangerous.
          The duties were very light for a time, no drift guard being necessary while the wet season continued, and only a quarter guard was found. On the 16th March a new wooden bridge across the Tugela was opened in place of one destroyed by the Boers. The ceremony was performed by the magistrate, the structure being named “Hely-Hutchinson,” in honour of the Late Governor of Natal.
          After the opening function and a lunch in the store, the day was spent in sports, surrounding inhabitants assembling to witness them. The usual military contests of tent-pegging, V.C. Race &c., took place, intermixed with competitions for the ladies and children. In foot contests our men acquitted themselves admirably, but the 5th Dragoon Guards carried off most of the mounted events. The last and most exciting trial of the day was the tug-of-war between the military and civilians. The Army, we were glad to see, came off successfully, after a very tough struggle. Refreshments were provided on the ground, and those present agree that this was one of the most enjoyable days spent the company spent in South Africa.
          Blockhouses were erected here, and were occupied on 20th April, our men being somewhat split up between the various garrisons. Matches were constantly being arranged and fought out between the different details in camp, causing for the time great interest. The chief one proved to be a shooting contest between the Upper Tugela Rifle Association and our company, in which we were successful. The distances were 500, 600 and 700 yards, our men winning easily by 45 points.
          All these local events, however, were put into the shade by a telegram ordering the company to proceed, as soon as relieved, to Ladysmith. A farewell concert was held in one of the blockhouses with great success. On the 7th May the relief party arrived, and the next morning we packed up and marched out, arriving two days later at Tin-Town to find orders awaiting us to entrain the same night for Durban, a command we were nothing loth to obey.
          The men left at Van Reenen’s under Lieutenatnt Maclean had come down by the mail train the day before, after numerous farewell concerts, and joined the company at Ladysmith on their way to the coast. At 11.30 a.m. on 11th May, our train drew up at Pietermaritzburg Station. The advance party of Van Reenen’s men had all the kits ready on the platform, and these were with all speed loaded on board. A slice of bread and butter and some coffee were served out, and we were soon rattling for the last time through Natal scenery. At 4.30 in the afternoon we pulled up on the way at Durban. The kit-bags were distributed to their respective owners, this time with their full contents, and we embarked on a tug that lay alongside the wharf waiting for us. We immediately left the harbour and steamed out to the transport “Custodian” lying in the roads.
          By 8.30 p.m. all were on board, and the first throbs of the engines brought with them the joyful conviction that we were at last under weigh for dear old England, after an absence of fourteen months.
          I cannot spend much space in describing our return voyage, as little was done on board. After the morning inspection we were free for the day, and found it almost hard work to discover something to occupy our time. The food and accommodation were excellent, and we were worried with as few fatigues as possible. With us were the Dorset, Middlesex, South Lancashire, and Devon Volunteer Companies, together with a few details, numbering in all about 500 men, under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Burrows, of the Royal Artillery.
          The second day out some very rough weather was encountered, which considerably obstructed our progress, and caused a good deal of illness. Several waves broke on the deck, one of them catching Lance-Corporal Cooper as he was ascending the hatchway, knocking him down, severely spraining and bruising his ankles and shins, and leaving him under medical charge for the rest of the voyage.
          On Thursday, 16th, we signalled the Cape of Good Hope as we passed, and ere nightfall the last of Cape Colony had vanished below the horizon.
          The heat in the tropics was terrific, but with the aid of the canvas baths, two of which were rigged on deck, we managed to survive, and on the 29th May the first glimpse of land again appeared on the sky-line. By 4 o’clock the same afternoon the anchor was dropped in the Bay of St. Vincent, and we stood on the decks gazing at one of the bleakest and most barren spots that, I should think, can anywhere be found. Scarce a sign of vegetation had been visible as we steamed along the rugged coast of the huge rocky island, whose side rise abruptly from the waves that foam around their base.
          We ran up a narrow channel, and suddenly came in sight of the almost land-locked harbour. In the centre of the entrance to this haven, a colossal peak of towers like a giant guarding the passage, and on its summit stands one of the guiding stars of the mariner – a lighthouse.
          The town itself is built on a level stretch in the centre of the curving shore. Behind and on either side rise mountains whose peaks are wrapped in the white folds of the clouds.
          Our stay, for coaling, lasted until daybreak next morning. The vessel having come from South Africa, was put in quarantine, owing to the plague then raging there, and in consequence our officers were robbed of this opportunity of going ashore. At the first streaks of dawn we steamed away. For hours we had an ever-varying panorama or rock, sea, and cloud as we passed on our homeward journey. Three islands in all were sighted.
          On Saturday, 1st June, a concert was arranged by some of the energetic spirits, and a farce was written for the occasion. The Dorset Company’s Minstrel Troupe started the performance with jokes and songs. The success of the day followed, in the production of the play. Two female parts were made up, and acted so well that it was difficult to believe there were no ladies on board the “Custodian.”
          The following Thursday, Ushant lighthouse flashed in sight at 8 p.m., and at daybreak next morning, when we mounted to the deck, the shores of England stretched away, before and behind, for many a mile on our port side.
          All the morning we watched the coast as we streamed up Channel, feasting our eyes on the old familiar scenes. Dinner was served, and we were forced to leave the deck for a few minuets, but were soon back again. By this time we had reached the Solent; the pilot comes aboard, and we run up between the shores, watching every point of the beautiful and varied landscape. All our baggage has been ready since breakfast, and is piled on deck, as wee are hoping for the order to get equipped for disembarking the same night.
          At 3.45 p.m. we were alongside the quay, but disappointment awaited our hopes of landing at once, as we had arrived nearly twenty-four hours before our time.
          The Dorset Company, however, were immediately ordered ashore and entrained for home. The rest of us, not troubling to draw the bedding for one-night, lay down on the deck or mess tables, and with kit-bags for pillows, slept away the few hours that had yet to pass ere we could set foot on land.





© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.