previous
next



  ― 27 ―

Chapter III The March

IF you have the last couple of hours' ‘watch’ on the horse-lines, you see it all. The long rows of picketed scarecrows, shivering with drooping heads, each in the little bare circle where he has nibbled the grass to its very roots during the night; the straight rows of saddles in front of the horses; the huddled heaps of brown blankets covering curled-up figures of men in the wet grass; away back in the rear the dingy waggons with the tarpaulins over them, and the cooks' fires in between. It is the half light that makes everything look dull and comfortless just before the fresh new day comes with the promise that seems to wait on every dawn, no matter what the real prospect may be, and, walking up and down to keep warm, you look out on the sleeping camp with a feeling of loneliness and chill.

Already the cooks are astir. You called them half an hour ago—according to your instructions, so that they might make the coffee for breakfast—and they are breaking up biscuit-boxes for fuel, and kindling


  ― 28 ―
their fires round the piled up ‘dixies’ (a ‘dixie’ is a big cooking pot used for making soup, or tea, or coffee—but why ‘dixie’ deponent knoweth not). They have been filled overnight, and closely guarded by the cooks, who have slept amongst them, lest unprincipled sinners fill their water-bottles with the precious water they contain, in preparation for the next day's march.

A few Kaffir transport drivers—weird figures crouching in coloured blankets—are boiling their ‘mealie-pap’ in three-legged pots at little fires of their own.

Across the grey veldt in front, a small cluster of saddled horses, grouped close together, is silhouetted against a sky fast growing pale and luminous. Left and right of it are similar groups, with intervals of a mile, or more, between. They are the outposts. Farther away still, as the light grows stronger you see occasional black specks of sentries sitting on ant-heaps, or moving slowly backward and forward—cold, hungry, miserable—who, the outermost line between Empire and Republics, have spent the night on the alert, so that the Division might sleep. Away on the right of your own brigade is another swarm of horses and waggons and guns, apparently grouped together haphazard and without any definite order. It is the other Brigade, all duly ordered in its regiments and squadrons and troops, but, in the distance, looking like a mob who have wandered together in the night and off-saddled promiscuously.




  ― 29 ―

The world seems very still, and lifeless, and cold. As the day becomes more and more daylike, the long dry grass shines white with frost, and the huddled heaps of blankets are grey and stiff with it. It is on your overcoat, and little showers of it fall upon your boots drily, as you move through the grass.

Suddenly a hoarse voice raps out an order—there is no trumpeting at reveille on the march. The voice seems to have no effect. Again, and angrily, it rings out. It is a great and important voice—that of the regimental Sergeant-Major. Single figures flit about the lines, from heap to heap. More voices join in.

The heaps on the ground stir, and roll, and are convulsed by spasmodic internal movements. Strange figures in woollen nightcaps emerge from them slowly, and, one by one casting off their coverings, sit up, blinking and sleepy-eyed. They rise to their feet, fully dressed, and stretch themselves. A hasty shake and the buckling on of spurs is the only toilet. A sergeant comes striding down his troop, inquiring sarcastically whether the remaining heaps of blankets would like cups of tea brought to them. Corporals move about kicking up the sluggards. Slowly and stiffly man after man staggers, half-awake, to his horse, and commences to rub him down with more or less energy. Blankets are folded, white and wet still, and put on the horses' backs to serve as saddle-cloths. Then the bare saddles are girthed on, carbines stuck into ‘buckets,’ and swords slipped into their ‘frogs’.


  ― 30 ―
Where the heaps lay are only left the scanty domestic utensils—men's tins and meat cans—haversacks and bandoilers. The gun teams are being harnessed over in the Artillery lines. Nose-bags hang to the horses' heads—a quarter filled by two handfuls of oats.

Some one from the fires shouts “Coffee up!” and away go the corporals from each troop to carry over the steaming ‘dixies’. There is a ‘tinny’ clatter, as the dregs and leaves of last night's tea are knocked out of the mess-tin lids against boots and picket-pegs, and little knots of cloaked figures swarm round the ‘dixie’ allotted to each troop, every one anxious lest he should miss his rightful proportion, which is barely half a pint. The great thing is to be in time when anything in the shape of rations is being doled out. In the English regiments each man puts his mess-tin on the ground. When all who have to share are present, the corporal fills each receptacle up evenly, and, if anything remains over distributes it in another round, no one venturing to touch his tin until all are served and the ‘dixie’ empty. This ensures ‘a fair show’ and no favour. But amongst the less well-regulated Australians it was usually a rush and a pushing in. It was impossible, always, for the distributor to remember each man whom he had served, and not a difficult thing for any one to ‘come the double attack,’ but such meanness was rare, public opinion being too strong upon the point. One


  ― 31 ―
never knew when the exigencies of service might not render it impossible to be in the first rush, and it was accordingly self-protection, and not an altruistic feeling, that caused ‘coming the double’ to be sternly discountenanced by all and sundry.

You drink your apology for coffee while it is hot. Heat is its only virtue. Tasteless, almost sugarless, weak—it can rarely be regarded as a stimulant, never as likely to affect one's nerves—and consequently one's shooting. But ‘something hot’ before you start your march is as salvation, even though it be only hot water. Occasionally it is the only breakfast you have. If you are well looked after by your Quarter-master, however, there is generally a biscuit and some ‘bully-beef’. Whatever it may be that you have, you eat it as you move about, between the packing of your wallets and the rolling of your overcoat. It does not do to be in un-ready when the ‘prepare to mount’ comes. The army biscuit is a thing not to be negotiated hastily, or approached flippantly. Eaten in its primitive hardness, without any soaking overnight in water, at least half an hour is occupied in the mastication of one biscuit. It is hard, tasteless, and nutritious—so nutritious that a man may at least keep body and soul together on one per diem, provided there be a bit of pumpkin, or a cob of mealies, to eke it out.

By the time you have broken your fast, you have put on and attached to your horse all the immense


  ― 32 ―
burden which that unfortunate quadruped is required to carry on active service. The wallets attached to either side of the pommel of the saddle are stuffed tight with your towel, minor effects, spare shirt (if you have one) and one hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition. Over them is strapped the rolled overcoat—wallets and coat together making up a weight well calculated to give the horse a sore wither. Underneath the saddle, as mentioned above, is the rider's sleeping blanket. Strapped to the cantle is the ‘rear-pack,’ which may consist of anything from a rolled and empty waterproof sheet to a bundle of firewood. Attached to the rear-pack is usually an oat-sack containing from ten to fifteen, or even twenty pounds of grain—on the ‘off’ side hangs a heavy carbine in its leathern ‘bucket’; on the ‘near,’ a sword, useless except for potato-digging, and unnecessarily heavy by reason of its steel scabbard. From this side of the saddle also depends the feed-bag with the day's ration for the horse in it.

Wallets and overcoat on the wither, yourself in the middle of the horse's back, rear-pack, oat-sack, sword, carbine, feed-bag behind—little wonder is it that we fight indecisive rear-guard actions, that the sword is never used save as a tent-pole or a spade, that Steyn and Kruger are able to escape from Poplar Grove, although thousands of mounted men threaten their line of retreat to Bloemfontein. But the Red Book—the same Red Book whose teachings are of


  ― 33 ―
volleys fired standing up—has laid down the law, and so it is the law.

One cannot but pause here to consider this matter of the cavalryman's kit, since it has seemed to be responsible for so much ill success in the catching of commandos, in the cutting-off of the retreat of Boer armies, and in the raiding of the enemy's communications.

If you catch a Boer scout or vedette, you will wonder how he lives—he has so little of what seems to be regarded as the very necessaries of existence in our own lines. There are no wallets on his saddle, there is no heavy overcoat strapped across his pony's back. There is no rear-pack, or, as perhaps it might be more correctly named, ‘loin-compress,’ to hinder the pony's action. There is no feed-bag to drag the saddle over to one side, so that it may press unevenly on his back. There is seldom anything but a bare saddle, without breast-plate or crupper, and a thin blanket beneath it. Sometimes a light mackintosh is strapped in front, with a little roll of biltong in a greasy rag. That is almost all. It is a matter of thirty seconds with him to saddle-up. He carries a bandolier, sometimes two, filled with the handy Mauser cartridge clips, over his shoulders. His rifle is slung across his back. His coat pockets contain a reserve supply of ammunition. And there you have the complete fighting man, from the Boer point of view. But of course he is grossly ignorant. If he only knew


  ― 34 ―
what was good for him, he too would resemble a Christmas tree, his movements would be slow and stately, his fat pony would be as like a hat-rack as ours became. He has not enjoyed the advantages conferred by a study of Red Books.

“I,” said the British troop horse (according to the Bloemfontein Friend), “I carry the most complete kit in the world. My master can make himself comfortable, even in your inhospitable veldt, with the kit I carry.”

“Yes,” replied the Boer pony, “but I can carry my master out of the way of yours.”

And yet, if you think about it, there is nothing in the equipment of a cavalry soldier on active service which may very well be dispensed with. He must have his overcoat. He must have his horse-feed. He must have his arms, and his feed-bag, and his blanket, and his ammunition. Most of the weighty things he carries are essential to his health or his arm of the service. They must all be somewhere within his reach. Cold or exposure would put him ‘out of action’ in a very short time, if he had no protection against wet or frosty nights. There must be occasional ‘hard’ feed to keep his horse fit for any work at all, and he must be able to get at his belongings easily when he bivouacs.

How is he to carry his necessaries along with him so that they are always easily within his reach, and at the same time ‘travel light’? Waggons lag


  ― 35 ―
behind; Scotch carts get stuck in drifts. Even the ubiquitous Cape cart cannot always go over the same kind of country that he sometimes has to negotiate. There is one answer, one suggestion, which is not original perhaps, but which seems to be the only answer or suggestion which may adequately meet the want. And that is, Pack-horse.

Pack-horses, or light spring-carts—and the pack-horse has the virtue of greater mobility to turn the scale in his favour.

It is a fair estimate, and well within the mark, to assume that one pack-horse could carry the more urgently required effects of four men—that is to say, one weight-carrier to each section. Not all the rations, and horse-feed, and other things which the man may require on a march of many weeks, but the things which he cannot do without at night, and hardly needs in the day-time, and which are only a hindrance to his marching and fighting ability. There would be then, instead of four, five horses in each section—four to carry men, and one to carry baggage. When cavalry are dismounted for skirmishing, one man of every four—the horse-holder, or number three—is out of action. It is not very much more difficult to look after five horses than four. In work where there is a probability of being under fire, such as scouting or reconnoitring, the pack-leader might be left behind. There would be fewer men in the line of scouts, but the men who were there would be


  ― 36 ―
lighter, able to travel farther and faster with their reduced equipment than they are at present, and possessed of considerably more ‘dash’—the great essential of a successful scout. Overcoat, waterproof sheet, cooking pots, anything beside the bare day's rations and cartridges—all that is not absolutely of use to the fighting man—might go on the pack-horse. And then the trooper, with an almost stripped saddle and riding as light as may be, would have some chance of catching his enemy and compelling him to fight. As it is now, he has very little.

So you mount your feeble steed, already weighed down by a load as great as yourself, and lurch along to where your troop is forming up in its squadron and regiment beside other squadrons and regiments. The advance guard has clattered out, and the outposts are drawing in to await the column. Other regiments form up to your left or right; the guns rumble up to their position near the lead. Carts and waggons begin to move up also into some sort of column formation. The bivouac-ground is deserted save by the inevitable laggards or men with sick horses who must follow slowly. Nearly every one is smoking. Troops are ‘told off’—everything is ready for the march to begin. In the shadows before sunrise the dirty, travel-stained khaki figures seem dingier than ever. Dingy and dirty, but very fit and workmanlike. You sit and shiver, and wonder why the movement does not begin.

A little stout man on a good horse, followed by


  ― 37 ―
a group of red-collared staff officers, rides slowly through the ranks and up to the front, eyeing the troops. You sit up straight, and take your pipe out of your mouth. That little stout man is your father, and your mother, and your best friend just now, and he alone—may-be also one or two of the trim staff—has any idea as to what the day is going to bring forth. In an hour or two you may be dead, or a prisoner, or wounded, or wondering whether the next shell is going to land under your horse. You don't know what is going to happen, and use has made you careless. You are merely the pawn which that cheerful little man moves in the big game, and he, in his turn, is moved by a little slim man. It doesn't much matter what the day brings. You have confidence in French. He never goes wrong or makes a fool of you.

Now you are off—the horses' legs swish-swishing through the long grass; the mess-tins rattling against the carbine-butts; bits jingling musically; the bright sun just peeping over the edge of the world on your right hand; white puffs of tobacco smoke drifting up into the clear air. The veldt is turning to burnished gold. Your bridle-hand is frozen.

All round is laughter, and chaff, and quiet talk. Curious scraps of conversation drift to you as you ride along.

“… Fifty miles to the Vaal. Bill's got a map, an' we measured it. They're goin' ter make a stand


  ― 38 ―
there. Lord Roberts 's over there—along th' railway. Some one else t'other side o' him. Goin' ter be a heavy scrap along the river … had a dog that useter walk along a top-rail fence. One day, out a must'rin' … so I sez to the Dutch woman, wot the 'ell d'yer wanter keep on fightin', an' actin' th' goat like this for; y' know dam well yer licked, I sez, an' she sez ‘Voetsak’ … got two cow-guns with 'em … went ter Gunnedah races, an' got took down … any bacca? … wonder wot'll win the Melbourne Cup. Now, I reckon … Hole! … That's Johnny French up there—him on th' chestnut. Clever little bloke, ain't 'e? … got two pounds of mealie-meal, an' some coffee, an' half a dozen bundles of hay. No sugar … presently I begins ter twig wot they was at. So I sings out to Jimmy, ‘Come on!’ an' we sails inter them with chairs an' bottles, an' gets outside inter th' yard. Pretty willin' go it was too … Hole! … look out—y'r' jammin' me int' him, keep over … better General than Wellington, so he is … hope th' swine gets a bullet next time. Ain't fit ter lead ducks, let alone … Hole!”—and so forth.

Strange lies are bandied about as to the doings of Buller. He has occupied Johannesburg—no, Harrismith. Mafeking has fallen. Steyn is dead. De Wet wants to surrender, if they'll promise not to send him to St. Helena. The probability of getting full rations soon is discussed, and negatived. The ways of officers are criticised.




  ― 39 ―

The sun mounts higher and higher, and your hands and toes begin to thaw. The little black dots of scouts who occasionally come into view on the far sky-lines are more distinct. Odd men walk along, leading their horses after them, to keep warm.

On, through the bright morning hours, you ride—past white-walled farmhouses, down long, gentle slopes clothed with deep grasses, by Kaffir kraals whose dusky inhabitants gape with wonder at the numbers of the rooineks, and where the little potbellied niggers gaze out, goggle-eyed and fearful, from behind their ample mothers. Sometimes the column narrows into a long procession to cross a deep spruit, and forms up again slowly into ‘mass’ upon the other side.

Barbed-wire fences are encountered. The cry goes up, “Wire-cutters to the front!” and two or three men from each squadron race on ahead, and sever the wires with their clippers, pulling them aside that the Brigade may pass. A thankless job wirecutting, especially when the bullets are flying. Sometimes the fences have stone posts—slabs of a slaty sandstone which the natives quarry from the hills, and supply to the farmers at sixpence apiece. Fire-proof fences these, and fairly lasting, one would think. Here and there a post is broken down. Struck by lightning, people who know the country will tell you.

A long kopje looms up over the horizon. You are riding towards it for hours. Distance is strangely


  ― 40 ―
foreshortened in this clear atmosphere. A few miles from it the column halts. The men are dismounted, and lie down beside their horses. The scouts are riding on ahead to ‘draw fire’. You pillow your head upon your helmet and go to sleep, whilst your horse crops the grass about you, and barely refrains from trampling on your prostrate form. A sudden scramble awakes you. Everybody is mounting again.

The kopje is unoccupied, and you ride on past it. The farmhouse under its shoulder flies five white flags. A Boer woman comes out and stares at you stolidly. If the Provost-Marshal and his men do not seem to be looking, you slip away from your troop, and, while your messmate haggles with the woman at the doorway over the price of eggs or mealie-meal, you endeavour to steal a fowl or a duck—that is to say, you seek to ‘commandeer’ them. Convenient word ‘commandeer’. If you are fortunate, you put the broken-necked bird in your feed-bag, and it represents five pounds of oats, and is not too inconveniently in evidence.

At noon you halt once more, and eat some biscuits and anything else that you may happen to have, and take a drink from your water-bottle, and sleep again on the ground for half an hour or more.

So all day, the swarm of men and horses, guns and waggons, rolls across the veldt—a wide-spreading oncoming—like a plague of locusts. On the whole,


  ― 41 ―
it is pleasant, and enjoyable, and lazy. Sitting loose in the saddle, you smoke and yarn, and speculate as to where you are and what you are going to do, and how long it will be before you are in Pretoria. You have made up your mind that Pretoria is to end it all. You are going home then—back to the station, or the office, or the store, and the warm welcome you know is waiting. Perhaps it will be a trip to England, where you will be fêted and made much of, and generally given a good time. It is days and days since you heard a rifle fired; weeks and weeks, perhaps, since a gun boomed out over the plains. All the Boers have fled to the Vaal—probably across it, without stopping, to Johannesburg and Pretoria. There will be a siege, possibly, for a month. You will sit upon a hill and watch the shelling. The lyddite will soon bring them to their senses, once they are fairly bottled up in a town, with the bricks and stones tumbling about their ears. It is all very simple and straightforward now. You will be back in time for shearing.

Another kopje rises up ahead. Closer and closer you get to it, though it is still miles away. A very long one this time—camel-backed, and with little foot-hills and clumps of ‘wacht-een-beetje’ bush in front of it. A single horseman comes galloping back from where the scouts are, and stops at the staff. Again the Division halts, and sits down and wonders. Ten minutes, and you see the Colonel talking to your


  ― 42 ―
particular squadron leader. They argue, and point, and look through glasses, and consult maps. Finally the Major nods, rolls his map up, picks up his loose reins, says something sharply that is only audible in the leading troop, and you suddenly mount, and find yourself riding out from the middle of the Brigade towards the blue kopje in the distance. Friendly souls advise you not to stay too long—not to get excited. “Meet y' in Pretoria if y' don't come back to-night,” calls out a humorous acquaintance.

“We're off to stir up th' muck agin,” remarks your right-hand man philosophically.

previous
next