From Dundee to Inkweloane Heights.


          Wednesday, 16th May, was, for s a time of rest. After the heavy march of the previous day, it was deemed advisable to allow the men to recoup. We seized the opportunity of a plentiful water supply to have a bath, the first since we left the Washbank River six days before.
          From our encampment the town of Dundee presented an extremely pretty sight. It is built somewhat more compactly than the majority of towns in Natal, though well interspersed with trees, a re tiled church tower rising in their midst. The roads, though unpaved, are broad, and the houses all stand in a fairly large plot of well-planted ground. We had not time or permission to examine this or any other of the towns through which we passed, only snatching a few glimpses as we marched down the chief streets.
          The large collieries established here were not then being worked. The water supply is very good, and is laid on to the camping ground as well as to the town. A broad stream also runs close at hand and in this we bathed.
          The popular idea of a victorious army entering a recaptured town was ludicrously inappropriate to the actual facts of the entry of General Buller's force into Dundee on the 15th May.
          No banners flying, no drums beating, and begrimed with the dust of a weary journey, some scarce capable of dragging one foot after the other, many falling exhausted by the wayside, unable to proceed another step; all unwashed for many a day, and uniforms in tatters. In the faces of many disease showed its ravages in hollow cheek and sunken eye, and most had the hungry look that several days of short rations brings into a soldier's face.
          But they were, for all that, a victorious army, and the day's rest made another lot of men of them, The soldier never misses an opportunity, and when, on the 17th May, we fell in to resume our march for Newcastle many a patch covered the rents, the beards had disappeared, the hair was trimmed, and all looked fresh and clean.
          At 7 a.m. we moved off the ground, and at an easy pace covered the distance of fifteen miles to Dannhauser, arriving early in the afternoon. We had gathered a small number of Boer prisoners along the line of march and these the quarter-guard of our battalion took charge of. The road was fairly level, as we had now left the hilly country behind us for a while.
          Every building along the line of march we found destroyed in some way - usually burnt. Now were issued, for one day only, what is know as Preserved Rations, consisting of meat and vegetables, and which, when heated, from a very good stew. These, after the long spell of bully beef we had had, were very acceptable and made a grand dinner for half-starved soldiers. There was a plentiful, though muddy, supply of water at Dannhauser, but by this time we had got over discriminating between kinds of liquid, being glad if we could get enough to quench out thirst. It was obtainable from the reservoir belonging to the railway.
          Next morning, being advance guard of the division, our regiment was on the march at 3.45 a.m., tolerably early according to European ideas, and after covering seven miles halted for an hour for breakfast. We then pushed on for some miles further to Ingagane, a small place on a tributary of the Buffalo River, over which were built both a road and a railway bridge. The latter had been recently blown up by the retreating Boers and was a complete wreck, one end of each of the three spans resting in the river.
          A halt was made for two hours for dinner. During our rest, and when several of us were asleep, owing to the carelessness of some person or persons unknown, the grass caught fire close to where our rifles and equipments were stacked, and, fanned by a strong breeze, quickly enveloped them. The men did all they could to save their belongings and stamp out the flames, but a large amount of damage had been done before they had accomplished this. Some boxes of ammunition were very luckily extinguished just in the nick of time, but the cartridges in the destroyed pouches began exploding, and Major Benson and several men were wounded in striving to put the fire out, the officer being hit in the hand. Several of our men lost all their belongings in the conflagration, their haversacks being destroyed, and many resumed the march minus a helmet, rifle, waterproof sheet, or other portion of their outfit.
          After a short stay we again moved on, and ere long perceived Newcastle in the distance. Owing to the frequent halts and the long rest for dinner this march was not so fatiguing as shorter and faster ones had been, and at 5 p.m. a tramp of twenty-one miles ended. The advance party of Buller's army, formed by the East Surrey Volunteer Service Co., marched through Newcastle, being greatly cheered by the twenty odd whit inhabitants who still occupied the place.
          These had, with commendable energy (considering the Boers had only left the town about six hours before) rigged up a couple of Venetian masts in the square, and nearly all wore red, white, and blue favours. But even these tokens of loyalty did not save them from the suspicions of General Buller's intelligence department, and most of them were arrested.
          We crossed the bridge to the north bank of the Incandu River, and ascended a small slope that leads to the higher ground beyond. Here we camped in grass waist high, close to a farm-house, the barn of which was promptly stripped of all removable wood for cooking purposes.
          Newcastle stretches for some distance along the south side of the river, and rising among the houses we perceived the tower of the Town Hall, from which the Union Jack was already flying. At the lower end of the town is the traffic bridge, and some little distance down the river stood the remains of the railway bridge on which the Boers had been experimenting, most likely with dynamite. As we passed through the place we noticed that a great number of the houses had been wrecked.
          For a day or two we were on short rations, but a convoy arrived early and the full allowance was issued. Needless to say we took advantage of the proximity of the river to have frequent baths and washing days, and regained, in some degree, a state of cleanliness.
          A church parade was held on the 20th, at which all the battalions attended. Next day the cooks got to work, and we rejoiced in a hot dinner, the first for a fortnight, and a very welcome change from the lump of corned beef or "bully beef" we had been having. For the next few days we rested, simply cleaning arms and camping ground, and having the rest of the day to ourselves.
          During our stay here the following order was issued: -
"The General Officer Commanding Field Force in Natal congratulates all officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the force upon the result of their ten day's work. The 3rd Mounted Brigade and 2nd and 5th Divisions have driven over Laing's Nek from carefully prepared positions on the Biggarsberg Mountains, including that which the enemy have christened the Gibraltar of South Africa, a force of over 7,000 men, only being checked at Laing's Nek itself by a fresh commando sent from the Transvaal Force in the Free State. The result, which reflects greatest credit on the troops, has been obtained by continuous hard work, long marches, and steep mountain climbing, far more trying and wearisome than most severe fighting.
"By Order
"R.S.L. Miles, Col.
"Chief of Staff."
          Such was the official recognition of the work we had performed.
          I have nor space to recount the various incidents that occurred at Newcastle, but must hasten to the harder task which yet lay before us.
          The booming of cannon falls upon our ears as we toil up the long winding road that climbs the Ingogo heights. We had that morning pushed on from Newcastle, leaving several men in hospital there, and were now nearly to the summit of this range of hills, famous for the lives that were lost on them in the previous wars. A few yards further, and before us in the distance appears the Boer stronghold and boast - Majuba.
          Majuba! What memories does that name bring to our minds as we gaze across the rugged landscape to the proud peak? But yet another recollection was to be added ere many days were passed, when this tower of hope to our enemies had succumbed before the skillful manoeuvring of our General.
          Around us on all sides stretch the bivouacs of Buller's forces, gathered to accomplish the feat that was to complete his success. A little to the north the Naval guns are steadily searching the Boer positions with their lyddite, and we watch for the little puff of smoke and the cloud of dust that marks the spot where the missile falls.
          Away on Pungwana, the eastern guardian tower of Laing's Nek, a solitary Boer cannon speaks out now and again, aimed at the cavalry encamped some distance in front of the infantry position.
          Our resting place was a few yards west of the monument which marks the spot where the heroes of '81 fell.
          Those who have followed the events of the war closely will know that Sir Redvers Buller granted an armistice to the Boers here to decide on terms of surrender. For two or three days the flag of truce was continually to be seen passing between our camp and a small farmhouse nestling under the shadow of Majuba, where the meetings of the two commanders took place. Firing ceased also, and for a space was a lull, but after it the storm broke only more furiously.
          Though we were at rest as regards fighting, the hardships of our life had in no degree abated. The heavy frosts and intense cold at night not infrequently made sleep an impossibility, and the rising sun was eagerly looked forward to, to bring some warmth to our half-starved bodies. For even here we were on short rations. At Newcastle it was reported that stores had arrived in abundance, but there seemed some difficulty in getting them over the remaining fifteen miles to our camp at Ingogo.
          This state of things, however, did not last long, and we were astonished on the 2nd June to welcome the almost forgotten form of loaves of bread (the first we had seen for nearly a month).
          The armistice came to an end at 10 a.m. on the 4th June. Just before that time we moved our camp to where a slight ridge gave us cover from the enemy's fire. Promptly to the minute a Boer cannon spoke out, answered instantly by out 47 Naval guns. All day the artillery duel lasted, our men firing from the crest behind which we were encamped. At dusk the bombardment ceased, only to be renewed at daybreak with fresh energy.
          And so we went on from day to day waiting for orders to join in the fight, and spending our time watching our shells burst over the Boer trenches. Our patience was rewarded, and on the 8th of June we moved out to the attack. Again the flanking movement was restored to. We marched some miles to the west of Majuba, leaving the enemy's main position on our right, and halted to form up on the rocky stretch of ground at the foot of Spitz Kop about 11 a.m.
          Let me here describe the position of the ground and of the opposing forces.
          The British position extended from the heights of Spitz Kop, on the left, to the camp of the 4th Brigade, facing Laing's Neck, a distance of about three or four miles. Right in front of us rose the heights of Inkweloane and Inkwelo, occupied by our enemy. Between us and out adversaries lay two deep ravines, divided by a long rocky ridge. A swift torrent flowed through each of these valleys, finally uniting to form the Ingogo River. Westward of the two peaks lay Botha's Pass, the object of our day's advance.
          Our pause was but a short one. The battalions were forming for the attack, and already the leading companies were sweeping forward over the hillside to plunge into the first ravine that separated us from the Boer entrenchments on Inkweloane. A little to our left the 6th and 7th Field Batteries and the 13th Howitzer Battery and Naval guns had taken up a excellent position on Spitz Kop, and were hurling their missiles into the enemy's trenches round Botha's Pass.
          The Devons and the West Yorks led the Brigade in this day fight. As we commenced our advance they were already wading across the stream that rushed through the bottom of the deep valley beneath us. We quickly descended the steep rock-strewn side, sliding or tripping over the many slabs of stone that lay half hidden in the long rank grass. At length we, too, have reached the bottom of this first deep natural trench that guards the enemy's stronghold. Far above us in the rear our guns are loudly roaring out their messages of death, while out leading battalions are already nearing the summit of the rocky slope to which our faces are turned.
          We plunge through the swift torrent, snatching, if possible, a hasty drink, and up we go with rapid advances and frequent rests until we reach the crest, and now perceive yet another valley to be crossed ere we can attain the goal.
          No time is left us to think. Down we go again, and ere many minutes have passed are forcing our way through the tangles weeds that grow in the stony river bed at the bottom of this second ravine.
          And what an ascent rises before us!
          Right overhead towers the precipitous mountain side, upon whose rugged surface the huge boulders are poised as though arrested for an instant in their downward flight. Here and there the frowning cliff all but overhangs, and hidden in the long weeds lie the loose fragments of stone which the unwary foot rests on but to be betrayed. Up this sharp ascent our leading companies have already passed and some are, even now, scrambling to the summit.
          We press on, resting every few minuets to regain our breath, and on again until the steep incline gradually decreases, and we are on the gentle slope of the mountain top lying in the grass. Here we had our first experience of being under rifle fire.
          One of our fellows remarked on the birds singing and another growled at his neighbour for making a whistling noise. The it dawned upon us that we were under bullets.
          A few yards in front a couple of British Maxims are pouring their leaden hail into the now fast flying foes.
          Presently, with much heaving and shouting, a fifteen-pounder is dragged by forty mules on to the crest above us, and adds its roar to the general din. The officers hasten forward to send a parting shot after the Boers, but receive worse than they could give. Our enemies had located the position to a nicety, and presently a large shell strikes the earth and explodes barely twenty yards before us, followed by a hail of smaller missiles from a pom-pom.
          This causes us to move a few yards further down the slope, the fifteen-pounder meanwhile staunchly returning the enemy's fire.
          The Boers were now rapidly falling back on their main position, leaving in our hands the almost inaccessible heights of Inkweloane and Botha's Pass. Indeed, to a casual observer the feat that the British Army had performed that day would have seemed all but an impossibility. But General Buller knew his ground as well as his men knew their leader, and, ordered to the assault, up his veterans went, and, ere they knew it, the enemy had turned and fled.
          But even yet our trials were not at an end. By this time the day was rapidly drawing to a close. At 5.30 the firing had ceased and we took up our bivouacs for the night. "I" company was told off for the outpost duty, and occupied the ridge from which the Maxims had been firing in the afternoon.
          The position we were in made it impossible for us to procure our blankets and overcoats. It was only with much difficulty that rations were brought up to us. In consequence we spent a night that few of us can ever forget.
          High up on the mountain top we rested, where the thick mist hung round us in heavy clouds, soaking the exposed part of our thin and well-worn khaki ere many minuets had passed, and even penetrating under the waterproof sheet about our shoulders - the only protection we possessed. Intermittent and sharp showers of rain added to our discomfort, while the heavy frost, increasing in intenseness as the night aged, benumbed our limbs beyond the hope of recovering any warmth before the sun shone through again.
          Being within touch of the enemy, no fires were permitted, so even tea was unobtainable. In the morning, before starting from camp, fresh meat had been served out, and now, seeing no hope of getting it cooked, we devoured it raw. Some did, indeed, descend to where the battalion was encamped, and made an attempt at frying the ration, but this was in most cases a failure.
          And so we spent the night, either on sentry-go or lying on the soaking earth under the scanty sheet, which every now and again the gust of wind would whisk off us, dispelling any little warmth we might have obtained. Every man waited eagerly for the morrow, when his misery would be at an end.
          At length day broke and the lone line of shivering sentries and the wretched pickets were recalled. Some hot coffee soon made its appearance, thanks to the energy of one or two of our comrades, and nothing could have been more heartily welcome.
          We received orders to advance shortly after daybreak, and this we did, occupying a ridge about two miles nearer the enemy's flank. The remainder of our battalion came up during the day. Our men were greatly cheered by the appearance of the wagons, and ere long overcoats and blankets were distributed.
          During the afternoon a large flock of sheep was driven in by some of the East Surreys, who also brought with them a prisoner. He said he was only looking after his animals, but as he had, when captured, arms and ammunition in his possession, he was sent on to the headquarters, together with his flock. It was with hungry eyes we saw this fresh mutton depart in peace, for had we had our will, many a one among them would have been stewing in the pot that night.


© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.