Clearing the Biggarsberg.


          No glowing watchfires lighted the British bivouacs through these cold winter nights. The solitary sentry, pacing up and down beside the high stacks of ammunition boxes, could cats his eye over the sleeping hosts and catch no gleam, save where the red lamp showed the headquarters of the General.
          But what a sight it was to survey on a bright moonlight night! Piles of rifles stood in long, regular rows, and round and between the stacks of arm the ground was cumbered with dimly outlined figures, wrapped from head to foot in their blankets, only slight movements now and again denoting that they were living beings. Around the heads of these sleepers was piled the kit - the burden that each had to carry, containing the food, ammunition, cooking utensils, and everything else that a soldier absolutely cannot do without. And there they lay while the white frost or soaking dews fell gently upon them, possibly dreaming of home and of its soft beds.
          The first streaks of dawn are just breaking the darkness of the eastern sky, as the shrill notes of the reveille ring out on the clear morning air. In an instant what a change! Men are busy on all sides getting their rolls of blankets and overcoats together, others are buckling up their straps in readiness; away in the rear a small crowd of men are rapidly loading up the wagons for the day's march, whilst on the farther flank a few thin wreaths of smoke show where some are already cooking their breakfast.
          Such a scene it was on Wednesday, 9th May, when the 2nd Brigade lay at Pepworth Farm. By six o'clock the battalions had all fallen in, and we were on the march. As the rear-guard, formed by our battalion, moved off the ground, it was promptly occupied by the brigade which had just come up to join us, and which, after forming up, followed on behind. Lombard's Kop still towered on the western horizon when we halted for the night, over twenty miles east of Ladysmith, at a place called Pieter's Farm. Owing to some mistake, our men, who were on outpost duty during the night, were unable to get their blankets on to the wagons, and in consequence they had to carry them through the day - no welcome task with 50lb weight of kit already.
          Next morning, Thursday, the 10th May, at daybreak we were off again. The weather was extremely hot and the road dusty, winding in and out amongst the hills, now and again crossing long stretches of bare rock, which the sun's fierce rays had made intensely hot, and which almost scorched our feet. Through thick forests of bushes and up dry water-courses, we passed, where the pioneers were hard at work making the track passable for the artillery and transport. At length we came in sight of water and lines of tents, and we knew the long day's march was drawing to a close. We forded the stream, which proved to be the Sunday River, and camped on the opposite side, after a tramp of about sixteen miles. Those of us who were free hastened down to the bank and were soon splashing in the clear cool, refreshing wave.
          As we marched down the road towards the drift we passed through the camp of the Cavalry Brigade, most of the men of which lined the road, to see what sort of troops they were to serve with. Our bivouac on the further side was a nice position in a wood of small trees, the shade of which we were very glad to lie in after the heat of the march.
          At 5.45 a.m. next day (11th) we again set our face to the front, to reach by nightfall the Westbank river. Here again we crossed the drift and pitched on the farther bank. The East Surreys being one of the first battalions in, our company received instructions to go down to the ford to help the wagons across. When we reached this place we found plenty to do. The road was cut through the bank on each side in a steep incline to the river level, and was covered in some inches of dust. The wagons came at the double down the opposite slope, and splashed and bumped over the rocky bed of the stream, but invariably came to halt at the ascent of the other bank. Here twenty or thirty of us would gather round and push and heave until the sixteen oxen and in some cases a double team, could get the cumbrous vehicle on the move again.
          General Clery was on the bank a little higher up stream watching his transport in. I must notice here one of those little incidents which do so much for a commanding officer's reputation. Seeing our officer, he inquired how long our men had been on this fatigue, and whether we were going to relieved. The General being informed that we had been at work several hours, he immediately dispatched an aide-de-camp with instructions for another company to come out at once and take over the duty. It was a little thing to do, but it is by these small considerations for his men that a general earns the love and respect of every soldier under his command.
          We marched back to camp as soon as the other men arrived, thoroughly worn out with this heavy work after the day's march. Although it was only about 7 p.m., we immediately turned in and slept till morning.
          And with the morning came the first crack of rifles. We were astir early, and at 5.30 moved out of camp, our company being told off for the skirmishers on the left flank of the advance guard. All day long we were straining our eyes to catch a glimpse of the enemy, as we moved over the plains in a long extended line. But only in the distance we heard every now and then a few straggling shots between our cavalry and the outposts of the Boers. About 3 p.m. we came to a halt at Veermak Kraal. The farmhouse here had just been captured by the South African Light Horse, and two or three men found in it were prisoners. Surrounding the house was a large orange grove with the fruit in fine condition, and it was not long before we had sampled some of it. The military police were put in charge to prevent further "looting," but one or two of our men found no difficulty in persuading them to look another way while they entered and helped themselves.
          Behind the farmhouse, about two miles distant, rise the famous Biaggarsberg Mountains, on which the Boers were strongly entrenched. Shortly after we had camped we received orders to get equipped again, and moved out in battle formation, as though with the intention of attacking this strong position. The whole force was extended and approached to within a mile of the foot of the hills. Then orders to retire were received and we returned to our bivouac.
          The cavalry picquets were fired at a little as they approached closer to the mountains for duty. All night long we could see lights on the hill tops where our enemies were preparing a warm reception for us on the morrow, no doubt expecting a frontal attack after seeing us advance in the afternoon. But this was not General Buller's plan. The supposed attack was merely to give them this impression, and keep them waiting for us there. When day broke what a surprise they received!
          While yet the stars shone above us, and the faint shafts of light were creeping up the eastern horizon, we were quietly awakened, and with as little noise as possible got all our baggage packed. Leaving the strong Boer position on our left we turned our faces up the long valley, thick with mealies, through which the track winds, until in the distance it climbs the sides of the hills and becomes known as the Helpmakaar Pass.
          The artillery and cavalry were already some way along this road, moving as quickly and as noiselessly as possible. Long stream of baggage wagons trailed over the plains and along the track, and here and there the compact ranks of the different battalions moved forward at their easy stride. As the day broke the astonished Boers cast their eyes over the plain to discover just our rear guard and a few of the last wagons moving off the ground, so thickly occupied overnight. Away on their left the British artillery were galloping up the winding track towards the summit of the pass.
          A few shells were sent by our enemy, but the naval guns only spoke once or twice, and put an end to their firing. At this time an old nigger came panting through our ranks, big beads of perspiration rolling down his face, and over his shoulder a stick from which hung a piece of white rag as limp and as dirty as himself. He looked as though he had rather a hard run for it, and expressed as much fright in his face as it is possible for a human countenance to display.
          Now, as we moved farther up the valley, we could see our artillery on a high ridge at the top of the pass, hard at it with the enemy. Every now and again a shell would burst behind our gunners, but few were close enough to do much damage. Our progress was slow; long and frequent pauses intervening between the short advances. At sunset we came to a halt at the foot of the pass, and made our bivouac on the mountain side. Water was obtained from a stream in the valley below, and soon the little blaze began to shoot up around the dry salt beef and lumps of biscuit, and we turned in to rest as much as possible before to-morrow's hard work. So passed Sunday, the 13th May, 1900.
          Next morning we were early aroused by the thunder of wheels over the rocky road, and perceived our artillery off at the gallop up the pass, escorted by a large body of South African Light Horse. We were quickly under weigh ourselves, and toiled up the steep ascent in extended order, crossing the large flat tops of the mountain, here and there closing in where the road was determined foes could have given us any amount of trouble; again extending to envelop some high peak, and at last gaining sight of the half-dozen houses that form the village of Helpmakaar. Here we again closed in and took the road, leaving Rorke's Drift about six miles to our right, the advance guard being deemed sufficient to search the ground and discover any ambush. The artillery, meanwhile, had galloped from ridge to ridge shelling the now fast retiring Boers, who fired the grass as they retreated, and so hid themselves and hindered us.
          In fact, the position right along the Biggarsberg Range was turned, and as rapidly as we advanced the enemy fled. As we passed through Helpmakaar, every house of which was wrecked, we halted for a few minuets to rest. Volunteers were asked to fill the water bottles at a farmhouse a short distance away. Those of our company who went, got a close inspection of the wanton manner in which the Boers destroyed everything they were unable to take away. As we approached the homestead we found food and grain scattered over the ground. A little closer were some rough stables, made with the skins that once had covered the floor of the dwelling. Nearer still, we came upon the bedding still smouldering, the bedsteads broken, books and pictures torn and burnt, saddles, chairs, in fact, everything breakable, smashed to pieces and thrown down to rot on the ground. One solitary chicken, evidently overlooked by our enemies, was being hotly pursued by a dozen or so khaki-clad warriors. We filled out bottles and returned to find the battalion had moved on, and we had an extra seven full waterbottles each to carry the two miles to where our force had halted for the night at the little farm of Beit.
          Directly after reaching camp our company was warned for outpost duty, and we had to again resume the march for about two miles on the left flank, where we took up a position in the hills. The left half of the company was detached to search a couple of farmhouses a little lower down the road. The first they found empty, but the second, after they had surrounded it, proved to tenanted. A Kaffir came out waving a white flag and followed by several women and children, who implored our men not to harm them or their belongings.
          Our officer reassured them, and they informed us that the Boers had been there that morning and commandeered the men. They also supplied us with some milk and oranges, after which we returned, leaving a guard there for the night.
          At 3 a.m. next morning (the 15th May) we were aroused, and after a hurried breakfast we marched into camp, and by 5.45 were again on the tramp - the longest, hardest, and most trying march we ever experienced. We pressed on for about ten miles when we halted to rest at the foot of a very steep nek, over which the road passed. Here word was sent to refill water-bottles, and every man took a long drink, expecting to get more. But as the party was going down to the stream we were again ordered to advance, the fellows hurriedly returned without the precious liquid, and no more was obtained until we reached camp.
          Up the steep hill we climbed, and over the flat table-land, across which the road lay for five miles, when we came to the further ridge of the plateau, to see Dundee some miles below us in the distance, and our camping ground two miles beyond. This was no encouraging sight for men who were already parched with thirst, hot, and weary with the long and dusty march they had then accomplished.
          The officers did their best to keep the men going, but most of us were nearly dead beat. The halts became more frequent for a short time, but the difficulty to get us on the move again soon caused them to be abandoned. The flying dust kicked up by the feet of thousands of men and beasts, cracked our already parched throats, and the merciless sun beat down upon us relentlessly. The smallest mud-pool was a sign for some dozen to rush from the ranks in the hopes of a drink, only to be turned back by some officer who would gallop up and stand his horse in it.
          The officers threatened, encouraged, and implored the men to keep on the march. "Only a little further." "Stick to it, men." But words cannot revive a man who is dead beat by fatigue and thirst, and hundreds fell down by the roadside unable to move another step, to be brought in on the ambulance wagons or to limp in on foot late in the night. At length we reached the streets of Dundee, and passed through the station where two of the telegraph staff were already busy getting into connection with Ladysmith. As we marched up the streets, there was more trouble to keep the men away from the water-taps that lined the road. The Kaffirs, however, filled our canteens for us, and they were eagerly snatched at, about a dozen hands being on each as the lucky man took a mouthful and then passed it on. Several of the houses had been wrecked, but a few of the inhabitants assembled along the road to watch our march through the town. General Buller and Clery were seen under a large tree at a street corner, discussing the events of the day.
          We pressed on, towards the camping ground which was still two miles away, and arrived there late in the afternoon with about half our men, the rest coming in during the evening. We were camped on the ground occupied by General Symon's force, and close to the famous Talana Hill, where the first battle of the campaign was fought. The space was littered with remnants of General Yule's baggage, left behind at his famous retreat. Mixed with these we found company rolls of the Boer commandoes and other waste left in the rapid flight by our enemy who occupied this ground a few hours previously.
          We piled arms and threw ourselves down, too weary, for a long time, to make even the usual tea. At length we managed to summon sufficient energy for this duty, and soon the little fires begin to twinkle in the dusk of evening, and the hot fragrant liquid quickly removed the last traces of the thirst of the march. Immediately we had finished our meal we rolled ourselves in our blankets and slept the sound sleep of utter exhaustion.
          And as we lay there on the open veldt, far away in our distant homes, the latest papers containing the news of the "REOCCUPATION OF DUNDEE" were being eagerly read.


© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.