13 June 1900
Strathcona's Horse with Dundonald's Brigade
In camp at Watervall,
N.Z.A.S.M. Transvaal, S.A.
I received yours written May 10 on the 27th of June, and was very pleased to hear of Do's recovery, as I had been anxious about him, that being the first news I had had of him since I received Stan's letter written before we left Canada. Our mail often takes some time to reach us here; indeed it is wonderful we receive it at all, the way it has been forwarded time and time again.
The last time I wrote we were at Tugela, on the borders of Natal and Zululand. We were to have marched right up country from there to Komati Poort on the Pretoria and Delogoa Bay Railway. We got as far as Eshowe, 35 miles into Zululand when orders came for us to be in Durban in 3 days, ready to entrain for Newcastle, thence to march north to catch Dundonald's Brigade of Buller's Army which had just then driven the Boers out of Laing's Nek. We left Eshowe on Wednesday, June 13th with 100 miles to make by Friday night, one of the quickest marches made during the campaign. We came through some of the loveliest sights in Africa, as our route lay through the sugar plantations and banana and pineapple groves of Eastern Natal. All along the road, people were coming out with bananas and oranges which they handed to us as we rode past. It was a hard march on men and horses, but I enjoyed it all the same. At one place, Stayner, 30 miles from Tugela, where we halted for dinner, we had ginger beer and biscuits sent to us by the townspeople.
We made Durban all right about 8 p.m. on Friday and on Saturday entrained for Newcastle, about 300 miles by rail. We passed P. Maritzburg, Estcourt, Ladysmith, Glencoe, arriving at Newcastle 2 p.m. on Sunday June 17th. Our railway journey was not very comfortable, as we had neither coats nor blankets, and 8 men in a 3rd class compartment haven't much room to stretch even when 3 or 4 get down on the floor. My pillow consisted of a mess tin and waterbottle, which were almost as hard as the stones we sometimes use up here.
Our first night at Newcastle was none too cheerful as it commenced to rain soon after we arrived there and we had no tents and no bedding except our saddle blankets. However, some of us struck off as soon as we got our rations issued and found an empty house which we took possession of for the night, first time we slept in a house since leaving Canada. On Monday 18th, we had a pretty easy day, bedding and kit bags arrived, and we managed to have a wash, the first for some days. Often we have to go 3 or 4 days without even getting our hands washed, though we have been able to keep cleaner since we joined the brigade and began fighting than we could when we were flying around the country alone. I am on herd duty today as we are camped to load supplies. I am writing this lying on the veldt with my horse tethered to my foot, so I have him handy if anything makes a break. This paper I have carried in my pocket for a month, so excuse deficiencies.
We left Newcastle on Tuesday, 19th June, marched through Ingogo Drift, passing Majuba Hill through Laing's Nek, Charleston and Volkrust, which is the first town in the Transvaal on the railway from Newcastle to Pretoria. The Natal government and Dutch South African Railways join there. The Natal Railway is a wonder, about 100 miles of it is composed of grades which run up to 1 in 30 and curves in it which make a train look like a snake on wheels.
On Wednesday 20th, we joined Dundonald's 3rd Mounted Brigade at Zandspruit. He has a brigade of infantry and some artillery including battery of R.H.A. and 2 or 3 5inch guns, but the 3rd Brigade is composed of Strathconas, Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, the South African Light Horse and part of the 13th Hussars. Left Zandspruit Thursday 21st and, after marching a few miles, 6 of us were sent to relieve a guard at a telegraph station. When we arrived, the prisoners who had been captured there had been taken away. The instruments were taken and the connections cut so we found nothing to guard except ourselves. However, in two boxcars which composed the station, there was a variety of provisions and lots of chickens running about outside so we put in a good 24 hours cooking and eating. The feed for our horses, however, ran out so we had to evacuate the premises.
We rode after the column until dark when we reached the head of the transport which stretched over 10 miles of road and found that the brigade had reached Standerton, 12 miles further, so we camped with the troops that night, reaching Standerton across the Vaal River the next morning. The Boers left Standerton only a few hours before our column reached there, Steyn being with them. They blew up the railway bridge across the Vaal and burned a quantity of stores before they left, but left the traffic bridge, Kruger's Prug as it is called, a fine stone structure, intact. We stayed at Standerton until June 30th, having pitched our tents on Sunday 24th, the first time since we left Eshowe. During the halt, we patrolled, searched houses, and took an occasional prisoner.
It is my turn in the saddle just now, but I want to get this letter finished today as we will probably move tomorrow; as I am writing with the paper on my knee, and every time the horse moves, my pencil does the same, so you may have to spend an hour or two making this out. Wal, to resoom this effooshun a la Josh Billings: on June 30th, we left Standerton and on July 1st, Dominion Day, being in the advance, we lost our first man, killed in action. The right flank came up with a party of the enemy and before they were driven off, one man was killed and an officer and one man taken prisoner, besides 2 horses shot. It would take too long to give an account of the time between July 1st and 12th, which was taken up with patrols and short marching and counter-marching, along the lines of communication. On July 12th, however, we marched from Graylingstad about 12 miles NW of here with a force of about 3000, including 150 Strathcona's and 400 T.M.I. who did the advance guard work, a battery of R.C.A., a battery of Field Artillery, one 5 inch lyddite gun, and the rest infantry. We marched to the east on a force of Boers, which had been sending out small bodies to blow up bridges, tear up the lines and bother the line of communication generally. On the 12th, the T.M.I. was advance guard and one of them got a bullet through the head, of which he died the next day. Our artillery played on the enemy for a while and they moved off.
The 13th was our day for advance guard and you bet our troop will remember it for a little while. Twenty four of us were detailed as right flank of the advance under an officer of the Intelligence Department, a German who had been acting as interpreter and was attached to our regiment. We had orders to extend a distance of 2 miles from the column. The Little Major, as we called him, ran us out much farther than that, until we lost touch entirely with the main body. Of course, every hill we came to might be lined with Boers but there did not happen to be any big Kopies on our route, although there are some bad ones to climb about here.
Well, we proceeded more or less cautiously, when someone reported to the Major that he saw two men on a hill about a mile ahead. Of course, we should have scouted the hill carefully, but the Major did not seem to think it necessary, so we rode straight ahead. It was a gentle slope to the top from our side, and we were within about 100 yards when suddenly a volley of 40 or 50 bullets came from among the rocks. I was on the right side of the line, which was extended to about 20 yards interval and was just riding in to report having seen a large body of enemy beyond the kopje we were on, when the bullets began whistling about my ears. I looked towards the centre of the line and all I could see was 3 or 4 riderless horses and a few men lying flat on the ground. You see that we were curved around the hill, so I couldn't see far along the line. However, I dismounted and took a shot at the Boers when one of our fellows rode up and said the order was to retire.
We couldn't see the major, so a sergeant took charge and we started to get back to the main body. We had to make a big circle to avoid being cut off, but we made it alright finding ourselves on arrival 6 men and the major and five horses short. When we reached the column, the artillery was shelling on the left and the pom pom shells and a few 15 pounders from the Boer side were coming close enough to be comfortable. After 2 or 3 hours scattered fighting, the Boers retired and we were able to go over the ground where our little Majuba had happened in the morning.
Our ambulance picked up two of the fellows, the Boers having left them at a house as they were too badly wounded to travel. Robinson, who belongs to Winnipeg was shot through his thigh, his horse falling on him and injuring his back. Dodd, who hails from the Portage was shot through the bones of both thighs, had a hole in the crown of his hat, and another through his sleeve. They are both doing well, and have just left for the hospital at Standerton. A month will probably see both round again.
The other 4 men and the major were taken prisoner, but were all unwounded. Five horses lay dead, and of those which managed to get out, 4 had bullet holes in them. Downie, who was a conductor on the Wpg. Street cars had his horse shot under him and walked some distance before he got hold of one running loose.
When we came to look over the ground, it seemed wonderful that any of us got away at all; 25 of us riding straight up a slope, absolutely without cover, 3 miles from support, and 40 or 50 Boers lying behind some stone walls at a range of 60 or 120 yards and 800 of the enemy on the other side of the hill. We have been under every sort of fire now, but have never had anything so much like a hail storm as that was, and we are not pining for the like again unless the positions were reversed, and we were behind the rocks.
On the 14th, we again advanced and the enemy gave us a sweet dose of pompom shells. If there is anything that will put the fear of death into a man, it is those cursed pom poms; they fire a small shrapnel shell; they have a range of 3000 yards and can fire 300 shots a minute. Their proper name is the Vickers Maxim one pounder machine gun, but the nickname describes the sound they make exactly: You hear a pom pom, pom pom, and then if you have cover, it is just as well to put your head behind it. The officers are not so particular about standing and holding their heads up in front of the enemy as they were at the beginning of the campaign. Lord Dundonald was on a ridge just in front of us the other day, when suddenly the bullets began to cut the ground around him. You bet he and his staff ducked their heads and made for the nearest cover and didn't lose much time about it either.
The Boers burn the Veldt as they go, partly to hide their movements, and partly to blacken the ground so that our khaki shows up plainly whilst they are invisible at any distance. It is hard to say how long this business will last, as they are making a running fight and sniping when they get the chance. We will do well if we are home by Christmas.
Tuesday, 17th July.
We are moving camp today to a better position as the enemy are gathering to the east of us. Bert and I are on outpost duty, forming a post about half a mile from the main body and 3 miles from camp. We were called out for this at 6 this morning and had to be in the saddle at 7, so our breakfast was hurried and slim. You see, even when a fellow does sleep with his boots and coat on, by the time he gets his horse fed and saddled, bedding rolled, rashings drawn and divided and arms on, the best part of the hour is gone before he has time to think of breakfast. This morning I had two chickens cut up to fry and had to leave them; it is a question whether we will see them again. Our mess consisted of 8 up to last week, but one is wounded and two prisoners, so we are reduced to five. Four of us brought in chickens, bought them of course, so we can live high just now. Everything belonging to the Boer is supposed to be sacred, but man cannot live by bully beef and hard tack alone and our nose bags come in handy when we strike oil.
This letter will have to do you all just now, and don't forget to send it on to Mother. I received her letter of May 17 two or 3 days ago and one from Miss Mathias about a week ago. I also received one from Tom Blake last week and 2 from boys in Ottawa. I will answer them as soon as possible, but goodness knows when I'll manage it. It takes so much of my time rustling grub and trying to get washed occasionally. It is a great treat to us to receive mail, and there is always great excitement when any comes to camp. I received papers from the Pater which are well patronized. None of you must feel disappointed if you don't get letters as our lack of facilities for writing make it quite a job. If I could sit in an easy chair and dictate to a typewriter, you bet I would keep you supplied.
Bert and I so far have come through without a scratch to either our horses or ourselves, and I hope when this reaches you we will still be in the same condition. I shouldn't mind getting wounded about the end of the campaign, but I don't want to get knocked out just now. We are both in splendid health although the cold nights are very trying, with ï¿½ inch of ice in the mornings, it takes until nearly noon to warm up. The afternoons are splendid, temperature 70. We suffer most from want of gloves which we cannot get here, as our hands are pretty rough between cold and dirt, but I guess it is better than the summer would be. At any rate, we don't fail much on it. Remember Bert and I to everyone. I must close for the present, but will try and write you more frequently in the future.