Our Welcome Home: Some Reflections.


          Everything comes to him who waits, and the morning arrived in due course. At 8.30 we marched off the vessel and entrained for Surbiton, and soon we were rolling along through the fields of and woods of England, admiring every glimpse of the scenery with a relish that a long absence from its beauties can alone bestow.
          At eleven o’clock the train pulled up at our destination, and we struggled onto a platform thronged with people, and made our way amidst cheers and handshakes to the yard in front of the station, which was surrounded by a vast crowd. A glance showed us that our home-coming welcome was to be even heartier than our send-off.
          Everywhere flags were flying in the bright morning air, and every inch around the open space was occupied by enthusiastic individuals bent on shouting themselves horse. The company fell in, and, forming fours, marched off, headed by the bands of the 3rd Volunteer Battalion East Surrey Regiment, for Kingston. No sooner had we started than our ranks were completely broken by friends and relations, who rushed in amongst us to embrace their own special khaki-clad property.
          We accomplished the journey in twos and threes, extended over a long stretch of road, and accompanied by a tremendous and continuously cheering crowd. Those who had no friends to meet them directed anxious mothers, sweethearts, and relations to the objects of their search. Some of these found a difficulty in recognising, in the bronzed face and broad figure, the dear one who had left them fifteen months before.
          We arrived eventually in Kingston Market Place, and here our men were sorted out by the police from amongst the multitudes of relatives who clustered round them, and we again formed up in front of Clattern House in open order. While this move was being performed tremendous cheers, mingled with clashing of the church bells, resounded again and again. Silence was at length established, and the Mayor addressed to us a hearty and enthusiastic speech of welcome, thanking us, in the name of the people of Kingston, for the service we had done our country.
          Captain Longstaff replied very appropriately, and we then marched to the Parish Church, accompanied by the Mayor of the Corporation. A short thanksgiving service for our safe return was held, in which we and the large number of interested persons admitted heartily joined. A shirt address was delivered, followed by our grand old National Anthem, which finished the service.
          After divesting ourselves of our equipment in the vestry yard, we proceeded to the Griffin Hotel, where cold collation awaited us. A large number of local celebrities attended, including the ex-Mayor, who had organised our grand send-off, and one face we were particularly glad to see, that of our old friend Captain Collyer.
          The beef was a vast improvement on the worn-out trek-ox we had so frequently indulged in when fresh meat had been obtained in the field, and we made large inroads into the beers and other provisions which had been so kindly supplied. After the cravings of nature were satisfied, several speeches were made, all running on the same topic, and sufficiently flattering to persuade the humblest amongst us that he was a hero. It was the spirit in which everything was done that was most gratifying. Every word and act had in it a heartiness that placed beyond doubt the genuine pleasure our friends felt in our return, and their appreciation of our services.
          Captain Collyer and Lieutenant Maclean were both called on for a speech, whilst to Captain Longstaff fell the duty of replying, for the Company, to the Mayor, the member of Parliament, and several other civil celebrities; a task he hardly seemed to glory in, but which he performed with great credit.
SS. "Custodian"
SS. "Custodian"
          This part of our welcome to an end eventually, and we again equipped ourselves and were soon tramping along the old familiar roads to the depot, where we arrived shortly before 4 o’clock. Here everything was in readiness for us, and without an instant’s unnecessary delay, we handed in our various articles and received a furlough for a week. By six o’clock every man had left for his home.
          During the following fortnight we assembled in half companies at Kingston, and were settled up with and received our discharges.
          Our term of voluntary military service was at an end. Even as it had begun so had it finished, in a blaze of enthusiastic patriotism that we, who served, will long remember as one of the heartiest and most sincere welcomes that we have or can ever receive. The Kingston and Surbiton people know the secret of how to throw their whole heart into a public ceremony, and they did it both at our departure and return, and we feel grateful to them for it. No half and half performance was it, but one that was in every way sincerely meant by the givers, and we, the receivers, felt it deeply.
          I have been unable to recount fully all that occurred on this eventful Saturday, the 8th of June; the day that a year before saw us scaling the heights of Inkweloane. Some of the scenes are not to be recorded. They are too sacred to find an adequate expression in words. Each man has his own remembrance of that day, so let him recount them as he thinks fit.
          Everything but our clothing, helmets, kit-bags, haversacks, and mess-tins was given in at the depot, and when we left for home we had practically seen the last of military service.



          I now have but a few remarks to make on certain subjects of interest, and then my account will close. Firstly, I must give extracts from two letters, one written home by Colonel Pearse, of the East Surreys, when we were under orders from England in October, 1900, and the other some time later.
          The former, addressed to Colonel Phillips, commanding the 31st Regimental District, and referring to our company, says: —

“Its conduct during its six months’ duty out here had been excellent. Officer, non-commissioned officers, and men have, one and all, shown a most soldierlike spirit. They have always been anxious to take their full share of the work, and from the beginning I was able to feel perfect confidence in them and put them in responsible positions.

“When they took part in the operations in Northern Natal, and in the action at Almond’s Nek (Major Benson tells me), their conduct could not have been improved on.

“The officers are thoroughly efficient and hardworking.

“We are all heartily sorry at Brook’s death.

“In conclusion may I say that, thanks to a good Colour-Sergeant, good equipment, and last, but not least, very careful training at the Depot, I don’t believe there is better Volunteer Company in South Africa than ours?”

          Later, from a private letter, is taken the following short reference: —

“I am sorry to say it is months since I saw the Volunteer Company. They are separated from the Battalion, which is a great pity, but I hear nothing but good of them.”

          It might be recalled to mind, as a proof of the usefulness of the Volunteers generally in this tedious war, that it was officially stated in the House, when a question was asked about their being relieved, that Lord Kitchener could not spare them.
          Such a statement carries its own weight, and I think the forgoing letters can stand without any comment of mine.
          I have also fortunately received in time for inclusion in this brief history, a farewell letter to the Company from Lieutenant-Colonel Pearse, which I give here in full: —


                                “Mobile Column, 18/6/1901.

“The Volunteer Service Company having been detached from headquarters, and the 2nd Battalion East Surrey Regiment having been employed on a Mobile Column, Lieutenant-Colonel Pearse was not informed of the departure from South Africa of the Volunteer Service Company, nor had he an opportunity of bidding them farewell. Lieutenant-Colonel Pearse has great pleasure in placing on record his testimony to the good conduct, soldier-like spirit, and efficiency of the Company, which was in every respect a credit to the East Surrey Regiment.

Although it was not the good fortune of the Company to take part in the larger engagements of the war, they were present at the successful action of Almond’s Nek, where their conduct was all that could be desired, and they have to lament the death of an officer and four private soldiers who died of enteric fever. In the name of the 2nd Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Pearse bids the Volunteer Company a hearty farewell, and wishes them all good fortune in England.

                                            “H.W. Pearse, Lieutenant-Colonel,

                                “Commanding 2nd East Surrey Regiment.”



          Now to say a word or two about certain details of our service. To start with, as far as I can gather, and have myself experienced, the treatment in the hospitals of the Natal force was everything that could be desired. The only difficulty was to get admitted. On our arrival in the field the amount of sickness was terrible, and only the very worst cases were detained for medical treatment. Most of the men were given a few pills or tabloids and excused duty, having to take care of themselves. This, of course, was a very bad state of things, but a certain amount of beds had to be kept permanently open for the wounded who might be sent in at any moment, and in consequence the sick suffered.
          After our arrival at Standerton hospital accommodation was greatly increased, and those ill were all admitted and properly attended to until their recovery was complete.
          At Van Reenen’s Pass one of the Indian Hospitals was encamped. A chat with some of the Hindoo attendants one day elicited the fact that it was this staff that had been left at Dundee by General Yule. The same Hindoo who had administered our medicine had, after the victorious fight at Talana, assisted in dressing the mortal would of General Penn-Symons.
          Again, as regards the African natives’ loyalty to the British, I ought to mention one incident. The blacks belonging to the Commissariat had a feast of some sort on, and they were howling and singing far into the night, when one officer sent the N.C.O. of the quarter-guard with a man to stop the noise.
          These two went over to where the shelter, which consisted of a railway tarpaulin stretched over two waggons, the ends hanging round the sides to the ground, stood. On reaching it, failing to discover any doorway, they banged at the outside to attract attention. The noise inside instantly ceased, and faint whimperings could be heard in witch the word “Dutchman” was frequently repeated. The corporal walked round the shelter again in the hope of finding an entrance, when, as he turned a corner, he was confronted a by a half-dozen niggers dressed in native fashion and armed with their knob-kerries and assegais, fully determined to exterminate the “Dutchmen” (or Boers), who were disturbing their musical evening. The private had run into a similar party on the other side of the shelter.
          No pleasant experience was it to be surprised by excited and armed Kaffirs on a dark knight. Our men, however, were recognised before any harm was done, and with many promises to keep quiet the blacks crawled back into their rough tent.
          The Kaffirs must not all be put down as mere savages. The common idea of them is, in the majority of cases, quite correct. The African native is a dull, ignorant, half-civilised animal, to whose mind kindness is a weakness or fear, and brutality strength. The Boers, as a rule, were much severer than the British in their treatment of the Kaffirs, but our men generally found brusque speech and a frowning brow sufficient to awe the blacks into the utmost servility.
          This type comprised by far the larger class, but amongst our coloured scouts we had men of intellect and education. The two chiefs of scouts were highly cultivated, and spoke English fluently, and with a large choice of words. A sentry of ours received a surprise from one of them when they were passing through the outpost lines one day. He demanded, in somewhat indifferent Kaffir, to examine their permits, when the scout remarked, in cultivated English,
          “I suppose you want to see my pass.”
          After that, the sentry used his native tongue.
          These two black were quite at home on almost all subjects, and it was a pleasure to have them pass our posts, for the sake of a few minuets’ conversation with them. One thing, which the less-civilised natives very frequently do, they never did, namely, attempt to put themselves on par with an Englishman. We promptly stopped this, whenever it occurred, by a half-dozen rough words, which would immediately bring the offender into submission and secure us the title of “Chief.”
          As regard the Boers, we had very little to do with them, except the small number of prisoners whom we had to guard now and again for a short time before they were sent down country. The impression of them left on my mind are by no means flattering ones. The men are mostly big, hulking fellows, with a large growth of beard, and a generally shabby and dirty appearance. The towns are all filthy, and the farm dwellings are in much the same state. As regards the surprise felt at the Boers commandeering boys of fourteen to fight, I might mention a fact that will in some way explain this circumstance,
          In one of our rambles we called at a Dutch farmhouse, more for curiosity’s sake than anything else. The structure was divided into two rooms, very poorly furnished, and was built of clay and stones. From the cement, skin-covered floor of the dwelling the rafters, on which were fixed the corrugated iron roof, could be seen, and from them hung several bunches of tobacco leaves drying for the use of the sons of the family. These boys, one aged fourteen and the other sixteen, walked about with the airs of men of thirty, and both smoked pipes. They were in all respects looked upon as full-grown men, and as such, no doubt, the Government of the country also considered them.
          Again referring to one of the alleged atrocities perpetrated by the British Army in South Africa, I might mention a small occurrence that happened to a friend. He had been on the march for some weeks, and suffered the usual hardships in consequence, when his party was left to garrison a small town. As they were standing camp, tents were issued to them, which they were glad to receive after their long spell of sleeping in the open, and on account of the increasing coldness of the nights. Next day, however, a party of Boer prisoners were brought in, and my friend and his comrades were turned out of their tent so that the prisoners might have shelter. If, as some papers declare, our captured foes are ill-treated, how much worse must it be for the British soldier!
          Tommy does, indeed, have a hard time of it on active service, as all of our company know. Not only has he to bear the hardships of long marches, hard fighting, sleeping in the open, and short rations, but he has also to keep himself in submission to the numberless officers set over him. The British private soldier has very much to bear in silence, but for all that he does it for his country’s sake, and does it, to a certain extent, cheerfully too. The filth and rags, bad boots and clothing, and worse food, are things which it is impossible for people at home to fully realise.
          These trails have ourselves seen, and felt, and learnt the misery of. Now that our service is completed we can look back at the past, not regretting that we took on a task of great risk, and full of unknown difficulties, dangers, and miseries, but resting thankful that we have been guided safely through it to render service to our Sovereign and country.
          Our adventures are far pleasanter to talk about, reclining in an easy chair, with pipe and glass at hand, than was the actual performance of them. But unless they had been done we should not half so much appreciate the luxuries of home, whither we have at last returned, and where most of us mean to remain.






© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.