In camp at Surprise Hill.


          "Now then, you men, turn out!"
          "Hurry up with your blankets!"
          "Get that tent down sharp!"
          These, and a dozen other now old familiar shouts, rang in our ears for the first time as we were turned out at 4 a.m. on the 17th April.
          Everywhere around us is hurry and bustle. The officer's whistle sounds, down go rows of tents, and within two minuets men are bearing to the wagon our homes, carefully folded and packed in their respective bags. The long rolls of blankets, also, are being hurriedly completed, and speedily borne to the transport told off for them.
          All baggage loaded, the breakfast appears and is hastily disposed of. A little way off the Queen's, West Yorks, and Devons can be seen occupied in the same manner. Evidently the whole of the 2nd Brigade is on the move. The "fall in" sounds, and some little confusion occurs as it is yet dark, the faintest rays of the coming day only just making their appearance, and it is no easy task to find our own place in the ranks of the battalion.
          At length we are on the march, about 4,000 strong, and with a long string of wagons rumbling behind, the station, cross the railway, and get upon the dusty track that leads in the direction of Ladysmith. On all sides stretch rolling plains of yellow grass, parched and withered by the fierce autumn sun, and bounded by high and boulder-strewn kopjes, at the foot of which nestle several weather-beaten native huts, surrounded by the customary mealie-patch. The heat of the day and the thick dust that flies upward from the tramping feet, persuade some of us to take a pull at the water bottle. We have yet to learn the advantages of abstaining from drink whilst on the march. The puny quart dwindles rapidly away, and we have still many more weary miles before us. The careful ones have remembered this in time, but others now learn by painful experience to save their water in future.
          We are obliged to leave Private Wooden in hospital at Elandslaagte, down with an attack of dysentery.
          During this day's march the officer in command tested our training by giving us the flanking to do. This we performed to his satisfaction. We marched about ten miles, and halted on our camping ground at 1 p.m., at a place called Modder Spruit or Pepworth Farm. The wagons were brought up and unloaded, the tents pitched, and, what was more important to us, the cooks were speedily at work, and in a short time turned out a hot stew.
          Next morning (18th) we again struck camp at the same hour, and moved in some sharp showers of rain, which soaked us through and made the roads very heavy for marching. Some artillery joined us at daybreak. By noon we had reached our destination, about two and a half miles north-west of Ladysmith, and pitched close to Surprise Hill, which overlooks the scene of the disaster at Nicholson's Nek.
          The camp was situated at the foot of Bell's Kopje, amidst a small wood of thorny bushes, and in a very pretty spot. Away to the right rose the great flat ridge of Umblwana Hill, whence the Boers had planted many a shell into Ladysmith from their Long Tom on its summit. On the left horizon towered Lombard's Kop, while in the south stretched the chain of hills that Buller had to break through to effect the relief. Around us, too, were camped other brigades, waiting for the further move that was to clear Natal of the enemy.
          Though so fair a spot, this place proved a regular fever den. There was, to start with, a great scarcity of water, and what we could get was none too pure. The camp supply was obtained, to a great extent, from wells sunk in the bed of a dry stream which ran along the foot of the kopje, on the side of which we were encamped. The nearest place for bathing was the Klip River, a good three miles away, and to this one or two visits were made during our stay here. Orders were issued to the effect that all water was to be boiled before used; but this is easier said than done when a body of 1,000 men has to be dealt with, and no means were provided for the work until after we had been settled some days. Owing to the bad water and oppressive heat, a great amount of illness made its appearance. Dysentery was most common, and the battalion doctor had his hands full. Every morning the sick parade was largely attended, and usually two or three patients were carried over to the hospital on stretchers. It became a common sight to see a firing party marching off to perform that last acts of respect at a comrade's grave. Fatigue parties, too, were frequently requisitioned for grave-digging, three of the long narrow beds having to be kept in constant readiness even for this comparatively small British force.
          On the 21st an attack was expected at Elandslaagte, and our battalion was moved some miles up-country to be at hand if reinforcements were necessary. We were, however, not required, and returned to camp. Next day, Sunday, a brigade church-parade was held, and the four battalions attended. Every man carried with him to "church" his rifle, ammunition, and side-arms, parading in what was known as fighting order. The extent of ground covered prevented all of us getting close enough to hear the service. The rest of the day we were free, and some of us took the opportunity of visiting the summit of Surprise Hill. The Boer laager we found in a filthy state, littered with broken bottles, biscuits and meat tins, broken bedsteads, and a hundred other samples of rubbish which the Boers had never taken the trouble to clear away.
          Amongst these lay numerous empty Mauser cartridge cases, and now and then a loaded round. Fragments of shells were also found, and hoarded as curios by the lucky discoverers. We explored the whole hill, and also looked down upon the valley that leads to Nicholson's Nek, and along which, no doubt, the mules of that ill-fated mountain battery stampeded. In the evening we walked over to the ridge that extends to the south of the camp and perceived from its summit the buildings of Ladysmith, half hidden by thick foliage of the trees with which the town is so profusely planted. Beyond and around it, lay the famous hills ever associated with the memories of the siege.
          But darkness comes on apace, and we turn round to retrace our steps to camp, when the scene on which our eyes alight causes us to pause for a moment to admire it. At the foot of the steep hill twinkle a hundred little fires, sending up a ruddy glare and half revealing in the glow the dusky figures bending over them; while beyond, the tents are dimly visible where the firelight gleams upon the white canvas. The scene is the more charming, as it is not intended for effect. Every one of those bent forms has a most serious business in hand - the preparation of his supper. As this comes to our minds we remember that we ourselves have yet that most important duty to perform, and so leave the admiration of this picturesque sight for those who have already supped.
          We hasten in, and finding a man just finished, take possession of the still glowing embers. A few fresh sticks and a continuous blowing soon create a blaze, though possibly our eyes are smarting somewhat from the smoke. The two large stones on either side are fitted to support the mess-tin, and in a short time the water is steaming and bubbling. The cornflour or oatmeal is added, and then comes the final test. Keeping the gruel stirring, blowing the fire, and breaking up the wood all at the same time, in a cloud of smoke, is no easy job; but we stick at it and are soon rewarded by success. We hand over the fire to the next man waiting and retire to the tent to devour our supper, for which we are by this time quite ready.
          Next morning brought us some ill tidings. Private Wooden, the man left behind at Elandslaagte, had died of dysentery in Chieveley Hospital. Needless to say, the sorrow in the company was general, and much sympathy was felt for those at home, who had yet to learn of their dear one's death.
          Life in camp now settled down to a round of expectation, at first exciting, but soon becoming monotonous. The battalion had been made a mobile one, which, for the sake of the uninitiated, means that it might receive orders at any minuet to start on the march. Every day one company had to remain in or about camp within call. Fatigues were ordered, more to keep the men in trim than for any useful purpose, and our captain took the opportunity of giving us a little practice in the attack and taking cover, on the same sort of ground as that one which we should most probably have to fight.
          Canteens were established, as also a fruit stall, which was a great advantage, the bananas and oranges being specially appreciated. The Salvation Army also had a tent here, where men could write letters and read, a large supply of magazines and papers being frequently received from home by them. The men in charge of this establishment held a very good reputation amongst the older soldiers for the way they had frequently assisted the wounded under fire during the earlier battles of the campaign.
          The camp was, moreover, not without its humorous features. If by chance you happened to sit on your little pile of wood during the evening's cooking, the men round seemed to see some point in the joke at which they laughed heartily. You would, in most cases, be liable to feel rather than to see points, as these bushes from which we collected a good quantity of our fuel, bear thorns some two inches long. The flies, too, proved a great aggravation. They simply swarmed in the camp. Open your mouth and as likely as not a dozen or two would promptly enter it, and many a time violent sneezing would announce the fact that one of these pests had taken refuge up somebody's nose.
          Another small catastrophe that occurred here was the breaking of a tent-pole owing to the wet. This, however uncomfortable it might have been to have the tent on them, in no way disturbed the men, who remained under it until morning.
          On Saturday, 28th April, the company took their turn at outpost duty on the summit of Bell's Kopje. All night long a lurid glow in the distance showed where the Boers had their watch-fires. Rain fell heavily during the dark hours, and our first experience of sleeping on the field was not too comfortable.
          The bread ration in camp was now reduced, by order of the doctor, to one-quarter, the rest being made up of biscuit. This was on account of the great amount of dysentery, which increased as our stay in this place grew longer. Additional precautions were taken to ensure the water being boiled, and large tanks were received for that purpose. Most of the water used for cooking was brought from a distance in carts, or in barrels slung across the backs of mules. These animals were led in a long string by some stately Hindoo; the carts being driven by Kafirs. A frequent sight was a mule broken loose coming through the camp at full gallop, followed, at a leisurely stroll, by its master, who had every hope of catching the brute again in the course of a day or two.
Captain C.L. Longstaff
Captain Colyer
          When not at work the oxen and mules, numbering some hundreds, were turned out to graze on the surrounding plain. At sunset they were all driven in, and it was a pretty sight to see the cattle form up in line beside their yoke like a well-drilled company. The mules, though hobbled, always gave a great deal of trouble before they were properly secured for the night.
          Time went on, and brought us to the evening of the 6th May. The "orders" call had just gone and we were listlessly strolling about, waiting to see if there was anything fresh, when a rumour, which sprang up as these usually do, no one knows whence, was circulated that we had received marching orders.
          Presently the orderly-sergeant comes hurrying up. Yet, rumour for once was correct. We move at 7 in the morning. And, what is more, every pound of excess stores is to be sent into Ladysmith, including all tents. Everyone is hard at work reducing his kit to the smallest possible amount, the overcoat pockets being all the storage allowed for extra clothing.
          Next morning, the 7th May, we fell in sharp to the minuet, and off we went with the much-reduced string of wagons bearing our blankets, overcoat, and all the supplies we took with us, and which were to last for some time. We retraced our steps as far as Modder Spruit and camped rather closer to Pepworth Farm than we did on our previous stay. Volunteers were called for to fill the water bottles, and this meant a long tramp, as the nearest drinking water was two and a half miles away. Bully beef and biscuits were now our rations, and we had seen the last of fresh meat and bread for many a week. All cooking we had to do ourselves, and the regular orders when we camped specified where fires were to be made.
          The following day, the 8th, we were up at 4 o'clock, but marching orders were countermanded, and we spent our time resting, waiting for other battalions to come up. A second blanket per man was served out, as winter was coming on, and we should get no shelter from the night dews for a long while.
          And so that night we rolled ourselves in our blankets, and with haversacks or helmet for pillow, slept on the open plain, to wake in the morning for the first of a long series of hard and trying marches


© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.