Charleston to Standerton.


          Looking back at the events of the past few days it seemed to us a little short of miraculous that a Company of men, nearly a hundred strong, could have come through these two warm corners without a single casualty. True, a bullet passed through the mess tin of one our fellows, and another man dug out a shot that buried itself in the earth within a foot of him, and many others of us could recall some marvellously near shaves which, of course, were bound to have happened in such heavy showers of lead. We were, however, very glad of our lucky escapes, for I am sure none of us wished to see gaps in our ranks which had once been filled with the faces of old and tired comrades.

          Now that the work was successfully finished, several congratulatory messages were read to us, praising the skilful manoeuvring and wise generalship that had brought about so great a feat as the clearing of Laing’s Nek with a practically minimal loss.
          For the next three days we rested at Charlestown, after the severe strain of the past week. Water, though by no means plentiful, was in a sufficient quantity to allow a fair amount of washing to be done, and in consequence we again struggled back to the borders of cleanliness. At night the sharp air almost froze the sentry on his beat, and half the camp would lie unable to sleep, or walk up and down trying to obtain sufficient warmth to allow them an hour or two’s rest ere the intense cold again awoke them. in the morning the thick white frost covering everything and everyone would make a picture of winter seldom seen on a Christmas Day at home.
          Frequent soaking mists, too, added greatly to the disadvantages of open-air life, and when these were not stealing around us, searching every nook and corner, the cold cutting winds seldom allowed us to dispense with our overcoats, even when the noon-day sun was shining with all his strength.
          June 14th was a day of bad tidings for our company, for it brought the news that Lieutenant Brooks and Private Cropper, both left at Newcastle sick, had died.
          From Private Wilder, officer’s servant, who attended the Lieutenant during his illness, and also was present at his funeral, I learnt that Mr. Brooks was left at Newcastle on 27th May, ill with fever. Dysentery and internal haemorrhage followed, causing death on the 9th June, at 4.30 a.m. he was buried at Newcastle. No officer could have been more sincerely regretted than Mr. Brooks, who was, with all ranks, a general favourite, and his memory will always have an honoured place in our hearts.
          Private Cropper, too, a comrade who had braved the dangers and endured the hardships of many a long day’s march, was gone; leaving a vacancy in our rapidly-thinning ranks that even our return to dear old England could not refill, as it would do in the cases of men who had been invalided home. Mourned he was by all, but with the knowledge that he had been deemed worthy of the greatest of all deaths — for his Queen and Country.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers

And the temples of his gods?

          But our misfortunes we were not yet at an end. Captain Collyer was obliged to go into hospital on the same day, after a tough fight to keep at his duty. The night after the storming of Inkweloane had proved too much, even for his strong constitution, and only through sheer determination and pluck did he keep the command of the company during the march, and pilot us safely through Almond’s Nek. Now that the excitement and dash of action was gone, the fever soon got the upper hand, and the company was more sorry than surprised when it saw the stretcher-bearers carrying him over to the field hospital.
          Private Wilder, who had just re-joined the company after performing the last tribute to Lieutenant Brooks, again supplies me with the following particulars: — captain Collyer was sent on to Ingogo Hospital, thence to Newcastle on June 20th, where he so far has recovered that he was able to start for home on July 12th, on which date he reached Pietermaritzburg. Two days later he finished the journey to Durban, and on the 17th sailed on board the “Orcana” for England.
          The command now devolved on Lieutenant Longstaff, the only officer we had left, and who proved himself, when we were again on the march, as capable a leader as our men could wish to serve under.
          Our stay at Charlestown came to a rather an abrupt end on the 15th, Saturday afternoon, a time usually looked upon at home as a holiday, but in the field every day and every hour, night or day, was the same to us, never knowing when we should be wanted, but always ready when the bugle sounded the “Assembly.”
          So on this Saturday afternoon, at about 3.15, we were sitting about on our folded blankets, writing, patching, or reading the letters that had arrived with a convoy three days before, when the call for orders sounded. This is a rather unusual time for the call to be heard, and we wonder if anything is “in the wind.”
          Certainly there is. We can see that in the Orderly-Seargent’s face a quarter of a  mile away as he comes hurrying up, note-book in hand.
          “We move at 4 o’clock.”
          “Where to?”
          “Don’t know.”
          There is now no hurry and confusion in the movements of the company. They have learnt, as the veterans of the regiment did long before, that quiet and orderly work is much the best; and so blankets are rolled and on the waggon, tea is brought up and disposed of, and we are equipped and ready to fall in at five minuets before the hour. Forty minuets for a battalion of some 800 men to pack up their bedding, load the waggons, strike the one or two tents used by the officers, have a meal, fill in the waste-pits, &c., and be on parade, ready to go on the march and make their bivouac many miles away, sounds quick work to those at home, where two or three hours are necessary to clean up, and a day or two to pack their belongings. But we soon got used to quick moves in the field, and many a time the first noted of the “Reveille” have broken the silence at 3 a.m., and the battalion, after all this work and also cooking its own breakfast, has been on the march at 3.45.
          So now at 4 o’clock we are moving off our resting-ground for the last three days and tramping the dusty road towards Volksrust. It was thought, at first, we were making but a short march, as it was already late in the brief winter day, but we were quickly undeceived.
          We passed through Volksrust, and at the other side of this well-built and pleasant town, came up with a large convoy bound for Wakkerstown, which we were to escort as far as Jaeger’s Pass, some eight miles along the road. We had already marched a good five miles and the night was rapidly closing in.
          We moved off, plodding along in the growing darkness at the side of the tremendous train of waggons we were protecting, carrying supplies to General Hildyard’s column.
          For some time we headed for a grass fire that burnt to the eastward, but soon swung round to where a similar line of flame glowed on the steep hillside away to the north. The heavy gloom of a cloudy and moonless night concealed every object from our vision until we were close upon it. The sandy water-courses and the hummocks showed like level ground until we had fallen into or over them. The leading men, or course, suffered most; but by their experience we all profited, and the word was continually being passed to the rear to beware of a hole, rut, anthill, or one of a thousand other pitfalls that lay concealed by the darkness along our track that night.
          We toiled patiently on, in the cold and gloom, up the steep mountain road that twisted and wound in and out among the rocky kopjes, and about 8.30 p.m. made a halt almost on the summit of the pass we had come top occupy. Here a long rest turned the heat of the march into a most objectionable cooling. A little higher up the track the large grass fire which had been our guiding light all evening was burning on the right of the road, and round this the officers had gathered, while the men looked on and froze.
          After waiting a considerable time, we moved higher up, coming to a halt almost on the summit of the mountain. The battalion bivouacked on a small plateau, well under cover. “I” Company’s turn had again arrived for outpost. We hunted round the crest if tge hill to find some sheltered spot from the wind, and at last camped down for the night on a slope, so steep that we were obliged to keep our feet against one of the many boulders covering it to prevent us making an undesirable journey to the bottom. In the morning most of us found we had left our bedding some yards higher up the hill-side, whilst a small party was dispatched to collect the various articles, chiefly helmets, that had completed their downward journey, and now lay in numbers at the base of the slope.
          The next forty-eight hours were most unenjoyable, as rain poured down almost continually all the time. Though uncomfortable in itself, the downpour had one good result. The tents arrived, and were issued, and on Monday, June 18, we were once more under the shelter of our canvas homes, after sleeping and living for six weeks entirely in the open — a life of sufficient fresh air to warrant us ever succumbing to consumption.

          Our stay here, however, was but a short one. Next morning we marched back to Joubert’s Farm, a small collection of houses a few miles outside Volksrust, where we had halted for the night the day before we entered that town.

          We found a vast force assembled, and took our place again with the 2nd Brigade. Tents had been served out everywhere, and the encampment made a vastly different picture, with its hundreds of little pyramids of white canvas gleaming in the sunlight, from what it appeared on the march, when the long stacks of rifles and blanket-covered forms denoted the resting battalions.
          Next morning this huge army commenced its move up country, following the railway. The first parties started about 7.30, and shortly after them the transport went rumbling by in three long stream. The East Surreys were detailed as baggage guard, and took their places in Companies beside these huge columns, moving off in the succession as required. We watched the snake-like line of creaking waggons creep out of camp across the plains and disappear in the far distance, the companies guarding them being stretched out like long feelers on each side. Still, the unending procession continued to rumble on, and even when we took our place beside this huge convoy, we left behind us a vast number of waggons and troops yet to start.
          The advance guard was already nearing its destination at Zandspruit, ten miles away, ere the last of the baggage train left camp at Joubert’s Farm. As we moved along we now and then reached the crest of some small ridge, and saw extending before and behind us the three ever moving trains, while in some places smaller columns that had been crowded out of the main line toiled alongside making six and eight streams abreast.
          We arrived at our destination about 4 p.m., and shortly afterwards went on outpost duty fore the night. Owing to the darkness, and not having too good an idea of the position, one of the patrols visiting us from the next piquet went astray, and it was some six hours ere he relieved the anxiety of his post commander by putting in an appearance.
          Next morning, the 21st, we continued the march, arriving at Paardekop, eleven miles further along the road. At 2.30 a.m. next day reveille sounded for the Regiment, as we were to be the advance guard, and at 3.45 we started off in the moonlight, for as yet no signs of morning were visible, and for some distance we experienced many unpleasant jolts and stumbles.
          At last, however, the day appeared, and brought with it the most beautiful combination of mist and mountain that one could ever look upon. Our track lay along the summit of a long range of hills, and as the morning light grew stronger it revealed in the clear frosty air a chain of large rugged mountains towering on our left. To all appearances they seemed scarce a mile away, so distinctly could every peak and crevice be seen. And between them and the road on which we stood floated a filmy sea of pure white mist that flowed from beneath our feet, until it seemed to break in clouds of foam around these stern pinnacles of rock.
          Presently the sun rose, flashing a thousand rosy tints upon this magnificent picture, until the mist gradually rolled away under its genial warmth, until the mist revealed a vast smiling fertile plain, dotted with farms and kraals nestling under the little clumps of trees that settlers plant around their homesteads.
          The rocky range became more indistinct in the warmer atmosphere, and gradually fading into distance formed a most harmonious background to the scene of cultivation below us.
          The view must, indeed, have been a grand one if soldiers who had marched for some hours with an empty stomach could pause in their cooking operations to admire it. We had halted an hour for breakfast at the roadside, and so had time to contemplate the grandeur of nature’s picture while munching our hard biscuit. We pushed on as soon as this meal was finished, halting for two hours for dinner, and at 4.340 p.m. arrived at Katbisch Spruit after covering a distance of twenty-three miles.
          The following day (23rd) we were allowed to rest, more for the sake of the cattle than the men. On Sunday, 24th June, we again struck tents and set out for Standerton, eleven miles away. This place had already a historic name, earned by the gallant defence made by the handful of British troops who defended it against the Boer insurrection of ’81. When the town fell in that war the British flag that had floated over it so gallantly, had been hauled down and buried.
          Now, after nearly twenty years of darkness in the grave, the same old Union Jack that had cheered the hearts of that little band of heroes whose tombs are still marked by a monument in the town, again floated n the breeze from the highest masthead.
          What a sight, too, was now spread before it. Instead of a handful of hard-pressed warriors sternly holding their own, a mighty host of khaki-clad soldiers was pouring into the town. Far as the eye could reach this great array extended, and already around the little place, on all sides, vast cities of canvas were springing into existence, amid long lines of waggons.
          Far into the night “Kruger’s Burg” (bridge) resounded to the rumble of British transport and the steady tramp of British feet, as the army continued to march into Standerton, to commence what we sincerely hope is a permanent occupation.
          The few inhabitants kept well out of sight, and as we passed through the place to our camp at the foot of Standerton Kop we saw very little of them. The traffic bridge, built only a few years ago, here crosses the Vaal, and is a beautifully graceful one of three spans, built on high slender pillars. The railway bridge, built on much the same pattern, but far stronger, had been destroyed, the middle span being broken in twain.
          Tents were soon pitched, and we settled down to rest for a day or a year, whichever the case might be. It proved to be a stay of a little over two months, but of that we knew nothing that night, as we prepared for sleep on what had most likely been the battlefield of the earlier struggle.





© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.