Joubert’s Kop, and After.


          The bugle sounded the single note that closes the day for the soldier, and one by one the lights vanished, and the tents became wrapped in darkness.
          Far away in the chain of outposts a scout has just galloped in through the night, bearing important tidings, and owing to this man the whole camp becomes, ere three hours have slipped away, more active than the day has seen it.
          Eleven o’clock had scarcely passed when the unusual sound of voices was heard in our lines, and shortly afterwards a heavy banging of the canvas awoke the sleeping inmates of the tent.
          The opening is quickly unfastened and the Colour Sergeant enters and informs us that we shall be aroused at 3.15, and parade at 4 a.m. next day in marching order.
          He departs to inform the rest, and in his footsteps comes the orderly-men with rations of bully-beef, biscuits, tea and coffee, which we promptly stow away in our haversacks. We then dress ourselves, and when all preparations for the morrow have been completed, we lie down to snatch an hour or two’s repose.
          Scarce does it seem that we have closed our eyes ere the non-commissioned officer is again banging away at the tent, telling us to prepare for the day’s work ahead of us. We “fall in” in the darkness with three other Companies of the battalion who are detailed for the same expedition, and march to the station where we discover similar contingents from the West Yorks and Queen’s awaiting us. All embark on a long train of goods trucks, and we steam for some six miles up the line.
          At last we pull up upon a high embankment, and immediately we swarm over the side and down the slope, falling in at the foot, and leaving our overcoats, which we had worn so far, in the trucks under the charge of one or two men.
          “All present,” and off we go, with the train behind us standing out darkly on the summit of the bank against the first streaks of light breaking the eastern sky. We press on along a rough track for some two miles, and are then joined by the artillery and cavalry, who had started about two hours earlier, and marched out.
          We form up in fighting order, and advance towards and exact duplicate of Standerton Kop — a long, flat-topped hill, with steep boulder-strewn sides — under the name of Joubert’s Kop, which breaks the monotonous level of the velt some three miles off.
          The West Yorks lead the way, with the Queen’s on their left flank, the East Surrey’s forming the reserve, and following behind the first-named regiment. We press onward in extended order for some time, when we learn that the Boers, who had occupied this really formidable, though isolated mountain, had retreated, and taken cover on a chain of lower kopjes a few miles further off.
          We swing round slightly to the right, and pass the position where we had expected resistance, coming in sight of the now occupied range in the distance. Still the steady tramp continues through the long grass and mealie fields, and through the fences of barbed wire that enclose them, and which we do not spare if they hinder us in the slightest; until we come to a halt under cover, about a mile and a half from the object of our attack.
          The thunder of wheels breaks the quiet of nature as the artillery comes galloping up to the crest of the slight ridge, behind which the East Surreys have halted, and takes up a position on our left.
          The same moment that we receive orders to continue the advance, the first report of the field gun echoes across the plain. The long screeching of the shell follows, and we watch impatiently for the explosion on the hills in the front. Presently the spurt of earth flies up right on the summit, and we know there are some old hands behind the cannon.
          The West Yorks are already pressing had across the plain, and we plunge through the long grass in their trail.
          But ere the first line of the infantry had reached the foot of the slope, or a dozen shells had searched the enemy’s cover, the Boers were seen in full flight. The South African Light Horse, who had been well to the front all the time, started in hot pursuit, and we saw them from our position in the plain, sweep up the hill side like a whirlwind and disappear over the crest.
          The work of the infantry was done without even a single shot being fired, and we received orders to close and halt for diner. The bully-beef, which had been warming in our mess-tin under the hot African sun all the morning, is brought forth, blackened and dry even beyond its customary distastefulness. In most cases it is thrown away, and potted meat or some other canteen dainty, for which we have paid heavily, is produced and devoured with much relish.
          Diner over, our faces are turned homewards. We have already come a good nine miles since we left the railway, so we can reckon that between fifteen and sixteen lie between us and our camp.
          A trying march it proved, too, owing to the two or three weeks’ idleness we had enjoyed after our arrival at Standerton. The heat was great, but what troubled us most was that our feet had got out of condition, and that such a long march caused a great deal of soreness. The short rests that we were allowed here and there along the road were worse than useless, as the pain was almost unbearable when we again resumed the tramp, and several preferred to move up and down rather than lie on the dusty roadside during these pauses. But, for all that, there was little falling out, and our fellows plodded on manfully until we were met by some regular mule waggons sent out by General Buller to give us a lift into camp.
          The worst cases got up first, but on the arrival of more conveyances we all mounted and rode in. This part of the journey was by no means the smoothest. The Kaffirs whipped up their ten-mule teams and off went the heavy springless waggons, over the ant-heaps and boulders, providing us with enough to do to keep our seats, and fairly shaking out of us what little energy we had left.
          We arrived at last and limped to our tents, truly thankful to be able to remove our boots and putties and ease our feet. A short rest soon dispersed all the fatigue of the march, and we were as well as ever by next morning. There were, however, one or two exceptions, amongst them being Sergeant Woodward, who had arrived in charge of the draft.
          He was detained at the hospital, where we were informed that he had contracted enteric fever. He was sent down country, and as soon as he recovered sufficiently, embarked for England.
          We were now joined by Lieutenant Maclean, whom we had left sick at Newcastle. He was then a sergeant, but had since received his commission and returned as a second in command of the company.
          On August 4th the company was sent down country about five miles to occupy a post on the railway at a small locality known as Erzdac. We had to entrench the camp the day after our arrival, and a part of the guard’s duty was to patrol the line to meet a party from the next post, and to examine all culverts and bridges. This had to be done twice each night, and proved, to the men engaged, no very pleasant job — walking along the railway track in the darkness looking for Boers bent on mischief.
          Our stay here did not last, and on August 8th we struck camp and marched back to Standerton.
          Escorts were now wanted for the goods trains running up country, and for this pleasant duty several of our men were warned. By this means most of us got an opportunity of seeing the famous cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg, and chance we had been longing for ever since we entered the Transvaal.
          Some of these parties went even beyond the capital, one getting as far as Krugersdorp. They, indeed, went a little further than this place, but were obliged to return as the Boers had destroyed the line. These journeys, however, were not to be lightly undertaken, as it meant sleeping four or five nights on the trucks.
          One of the escorts arrived at Pretoria after about forty-eight hours travelling, and, in consequence, had obtained a minimum amount of rest. They were told by the Station Officer to go to the “Birdcage,” the place formerly used for the confinement of British officers, who were prisoners of war, but now occupied as a “Rest Camp.”
          They arrived there fairly tired out. Whilst the non-commissioned officer was making inquiries, the majority of the men — with the adaptability of soldiers — lay down, wrapped themselves up, and went to sleep on the square.
          At this opportune moment a General rode into the camp and passed close to the tired men. Those who were not yet asleep stood at attention, but several slumbered on, heeding not the dignity of this colossal blunder or red tape.
          For this heinous offence the whole party were ordered an hour’s extra drill!
          What may we ask, is the military definition of a Rest Camp?
          An unpleasant duty we were called upon to preform whilst at Standerton impressed upon us the utter loneliness of a soldiers burial. Bugler Reilly, of the Scottish Rifles, a married man, died in the hospital of enteric fever. Not a friend or comrade was there in the place, who belonged to his Regiment, so, at his death, a fatigue party was requisitioned to render the last tributes. A detachment was sent from our company, consisting of twelve armed men and eight bearers. We marched over to the hospital, and the armed party lined the path from the ambulance waggon to the gate. Four of the bearers then entered, and returned with the stretcher on which lay the body, covered with the Union Jack.
          It was placed on the waggon and we marched to the cemetery on the farther side of the town, with arms reversed. Here a long wait occurred, owing to the priest having to come some distance up country. He arrived, however, after some time, and the service, according to the Roman Catholic rite, was proceeding, when it was discovered that no ropes had been provided for lowering the body.
          One of the men, however, removed his putties, and with the duty was performed. The guard presented arms, the bugler sounded the last post, and we marched away, leaving behind, in what is most likely a nameless grave, the remains of one who had no friend to mourn him, save those who were far away. But a soldier is always a comrade too, and these last duties to a departed brother-in-arms were performed by us with the utmost reverence; and, no doubt, those of our company who died in hospital in South Africa received a similar respectful attention from the comrades of other corps upon whom the sad duty fell.
          Field-ovens now arrived and were fixed by the cooks. The day of our first baked meat dinner (for up to the present we had had stews) deserves to be recorded. It occurred on the 21st August, and was thoroughly enjoyed, though one or two of the men nearly lost their mental balance at the long unprecedented sight, when the orderly man arrived with the dish.
          Owing to the enthusiasm and industry of a private in “B” Company, whose name, unfortunately, I have not obtained, we had the privilege of enjoying an open-air concert. The programme was very varied, and, one of the waggons being used for a stage, all had a good chance of hearing and seeing. The officers were present, and the whole affair proved a rattling success.
          Our stay at Standerton at length came to an end. After waiting two days on account of heavy rain, as it showed few signs of abating, we struck tents on the 29th August in the wet, packed up, and marched down to the station, where a train awaited us. We embarked and ran down the line to Platrand, a small wayside station, but with an hotel and one or two iron buildings in addition, making, in this country, a really respectably large town.
          Here we found the 11th Brigade encamped. Our company, with the two regular companies who had come with us, detrained and pitched tents a little way outside the station. We turned in early, and were in no hurry to rise the following morning. When we did so a great a surprise was in store for us.
          Instead of rows of tents and lines of horses we had seen overnight, the last few waggons were just rolling off the camping ground, and we were left alone. The whole thickly-populated canvas city had vanished with the morning sun, leaving scarce an indication that it had ever occupied the vast expanse of ground around the station.
          We shifted our tents, taking positions at the corner of what resembled a large triangle. Each company guarded a side. We took charge of the road that here runs close to the railway, and along which we had passed on our way to Standerton. Water was rather scarce, and all used for drinking purposes had to be brought by rail; but one or two muddy pools provided us with sufficient to keep fairly clean. The days were spent in  guard duty and filling in the trenches and rifle-pits which had been dug by the 11th Brigade, and which were now useless with our small force, and might possibly provide cover for the enemy.
          Our stay passed without any incident worthy of note occurring, and on September 8 we received orders to move down to Volksrust. The next morning we struck tents, but did not entrain until late in the afternoon, arriving at our destination at 6.30 p.m., and pitching for the night.
          The following day we marched out to a place of great strength, and commanding the plain around for a considerable distance. We encamped on a platform cut in the hillside about thirty feet from the summit, and well protected from the slopes most likely to be attacked. Sergeant Cox was left with his section to hold some defences in the plain nearer the town. Our stay here was very brief. No sooner had we succeeded in fixing up the field oven and tapping the beer than we received orders to move, and on the morning of the 14th we packed up and marched to Zandspruit. There we found tow other Companies encamped, one of the Queen’s and one of the Rifle Brigade, and a staff of officers who, we concluded, were practicing for their home guards, such was their devotion to red tape. Every smallest trifle had to be done in this or that way, else it was not right. One, for instance, was that the orderly officer must see the dinners before the guard received them. This meant, usually, a good twenty minuets for the dinners to cool while waiting for the inspection. The East Surreys didn’t see the point of this important duty, and ne’er a one of our men’s dinners did the orderly officer see, curse how he might, unless it was the leavings the niggers were eating outside.
          While here a large amount of horses, cattle, and sheep were driven in by the scouts and the 5th Dragoon Guards who were scouring the neighbourhood. A good number of Boer, too, gave themselves up, and a very pretty picture was formed by a party of nine of them, all mounted, coming down the road to our station under the white flag. They were sent on to Volksrust and dealt with there.

          Guards were supplied from our camp to two bridges on the railway between Zandspruit and Volksrust, the duty lasting for a week. It was a real pleasure to get on one of these posts to be free from the red tape of the camp. The guard was composed of twelve men, with a non-commissioned officer in charge; all rations were sent down the line on a trolley daily.





© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.