Brigade Camp, 11 miles east of Graspan
My last detailed account of our movement was mailed to you on the 29th of Dec. Since then we have had, during Jany. a dull time and since the beginning of the month more of interest. We left Belmont on Sunday the 21st for Dover Farm 30 miles west of Belmont where we spent two days building rifle shelter walls and keeping watch on a Kopje over looking the farm. At sunset the first day some of the mounted Infantry scouts encountered a party of Boers & exchanged some shots one of our scouts being wounded in the arm. On its being ascertained that the enemy were close at hand in large numbers we were ordered to retire towards Belmont and left at 7 p.m. marching through wet sand and mud till 1.30 a.m. when wet and tired we lay down on the damp ground beside our rifles and endeavored to keep off the chilly morning wind with our overcoats thrown over us.
After a day's rest, thoroughly appreciated we marched 9 miles to Richmond Farm, where we built a substantial fort on top of a flat topped kopje over looking the farm, and there we spent three weeks with only two slight alarms. We were delighted to be relieved at that post on the 11th [?] 7 p.m. by a company of the Minister Fusiliers and at 11 p.m. we got orders to march to Belmont.
We had coffee and biscuits and at 2.15 left for Belmont completing a very creditable march at 7.15. A very hot day was spent in Belmont with considerable fatigue to do, which came rather hard after 36 hours without sleep. The only enjoyable features of the day being the news that we were at last to see action and a liberal supply of most delicious grapes.
At 7 p.m. we entrained for Graspan (9 miles) and were quite ready to turn in about 9 p.m. after being issued with two days rations (12 biscuits) and the famous ‘emergency ration". This may best be described as a tin case, (like a fat spectacle case) about 3 in long, 3 wide and 1 ¼ in thick, sealed by a lightly soldered band round the middle.
This is only to be opened under order of an officer or in extremity. It contains in one end 4 oz of concentrated beef and in the other 4 oz of cocoa paste and the ration is calculated to maintain strength for 36 hours if used in small quantities at a time Directions for use are enclosed.
Today, Feb. 13th, we had our breakfast at 3 a.m. & at daylight marched eastward led by the Gordons. One hours march, 5 min. rest, one hour's march, three hours rest and two hours more and we were delighted to see water ahead. We had the hard luck to see a few of our men obliged to drop out of the ranks, overcome with the intense heat. They were in good company however & no disgrace attached to them as fully as many of the Gordons dropped out & they had the advantage over us of not carrying any overcoats. They tell us that they have done hard marching in India and never saw so many of their men obliged to drop out. We Canadians feel proud today of our record, weighted with a 6 lb. over coat which our transport mules were apparently unable to carry "A" Company traveled eleven miles and "B", "C" & "D" co's nine miles following the famous Gordons and an hour after the march was done only one man was unfit to be in the lines.
I may add that for the last mile two of the Kootenay Rifles carried two rifles and two overcoats and haversacks respectively.
Good news has greeted us here and the music of Artillery in the distance makes us realize the improvement in our position. We march at 3 a.m tomorrow in gallant company, the Black Watch, Gordons, Seaforths, Naval Brigade, Shropshires Cornwallis, Royal Horse Artillery, and latest and newest on the field, the City of London Volunteers being in our brigade, and our objective point is the point at which Generals Roberts & Kitchener intended to engage the enemy tomorrow, and we shall be in it. At last we are to have a chance of showing our mettle, and side by side with the Gordons, who seem to take very kindly to their Canadian cousins, we hope to uphold in a worthy manner the honor of our Mother country and her eldest daughter.
As there is no possible chance of mailing this now I shall "break off" and hope within a couple of days to be able too add an account of our first engagement.
St Valentine's day we did another good march before dinner, about eleven miles, and this time having no overcoats to carry we got through very well in spite of the intense heat.
Our Coy has no men absent today. We are now close to the Riet River whose waters were largely patronised on our arrival. We "Tommies" almost worship a river here, which really only consists of a series of more or less muddy and stagnant pools.
The afternoon has been filled with fatigues, the heaviest, which I have just come off, being taking across the river led the two 47 naval guns with our brigade.
They are pretty little pea shooters, about 22 ft long and they throw fifty pounds of Lyddite a distance of near by seven miles.
All day long a constant stream of transport waggons has been crossing the river; hour after hour, over they go and there are at least fifty in sight yet waiting roadway. We are to cross the river tonight and join the rest of our Brigade, now bivouacked there.
Here we enjoy our tea and biscuit after which some enjoy a bathe in the river and all get their water bottles filled for the march in the morning We fall in at 1 a.m. tomorrow and I believe we are expected to be in touch with the enemy early in the day. As we marched into camp this evening we got the command "eyes right" and to our great pleasure we saw the famous "Bobs" He was accompanied by Kitchener and Sir Hector McDonald but the writer only saw "Bobs". Truly as Kipling says "He's a terror for his size"! He is said to have told some of the Regiment that they would have plenty of good active service for some time. In an encounter a few nights ago with some Boers in the neighborhood a Private of the Gordons had the good fortune to rescue a Corporal under fire for which he has been recommended for the Victoria Cross.
I hope to give you a good account of good active work this time to make up for my long silence We are now in the 4th Brigade of Genl. French's Division and we are very proud of the company we are in.
To illustrate the feeling the Gordons have toward us, I hear this story told: As our train pulled into Graspan on Sunday night a stalwart Gordon came up alongside and said "What Regiment is this?" "The Royal Canadians" on hearing which he called out to a comrade somewhere in the darkness "Ah! they're oor lads, Jock!"
On the 15th reveille goes at 2.30 and by 5 a.m., the Brigade is on the road again. Five hours march brought us to our present camp where two Brigades of French Division are stationed about 3 miles south of Jacobsdal.
This afternoon while out on sentry we heard the sounds of the first engagement near here. For an hour the rattle of rifles was quite brisk. After which we heard the artillery engage and the bursting of shrapnels over the kopje about a mile ahead of us. We now lie on the field in fighting order and turn in for a well earned nights rest - which we may not get. We did however and next day moved on to Jacobsdal only three miles away the scene of yesterday's fight. Here some of the troops became rather too free in their treatment of the property of the people there, killing more meat than they needed besides doing some looting in the town which was, as usual, out of bounds. The result was an order read to each Regt. from Field Marshal Lord Roberts that in the future any man found guilty of looking will be hanged and the Regiment to which he belongs sent to Cape Town for Garrison Duty.
Our next camp after a very tiresome night march was on the Modder River, where we enjoyed a delicious swim and rested all day. At 6 p.m. we fell in and marched all night, 20 miles, arriving here, Modder Sprint, I think is the name of the place, at 2.30 In a few minutes we had a cup of coffee and a biscuit and were ordered to fall in and get into the engagement then in progress. As we came along to road before daylight we could hear the booming of our guns and by the time we had fallen in the rifle fire was heard quite sharply.
The Royal Canadians first moved out a short distance in support of the artillery, but as they came through the camp and forded the Modder River, hanging onto a rope to keep from being washed off our feet and holding our rifles above the water when possible. We made a circle of about two miles and then advanced toward the enemy who, on our front were very well hidden in the trees along the river. We advanced in Skirmish orders over a wide flat taking advantage of every anthill and bush that would afford any cover
After lying half an hour with the supports, we were ordered into the firing line and hardly had we got there when our Capt. Arnold, of Winnipeg, was shot in the head. He is still alive, (two days later) but small hopes are held of his recovery. We got some what separated in the firing line most of the Kootenay men being with a group of Seaforth Highlanders.
Here we lay till 5 p.m. exchanging volleys with the unseen enemy whom we supposed to be occupying trenches on our side of the river. At five word was passed along the line to fix bayonets and a few minutes later the word was given to charge. To this hour we do not know who gave the order. It was not intended that we should charge there, as we found out after, but the order came and we jumped out, Canadians, Seaforths Gordons, Black Watch, Cornwallis, Shropshires, & men of the mounted Infantry, with a rousing cheer rushed down a gentle slope towards the river. We rushed to within 200 yds of the enemy's nearest trenches, the farthest away were not over 400 yds and the Kootenay boys were well to the front. The fire was terrific, the diabolical explosive bullets of the Boers snapping in the air all around us, their noise varied by the sharp "ping" of the Mauser and the hiss of the dum-dum.
The Highlanders say Magersfoutern was not a whit worse, and from the scenes on the field afterwards, I can well believe it. Speaking of our experience that the sensation was as if one were rushing through a storm of bullets as thick as a December snow storm, the only clear space in which was our direct path.
When I saw my section commander drop behind a bush I did likewise and lay close. Then the agony began. There we lay in fatal range, many had been killed outright in the charge, and all who had not good cover were in fearful danger and the groans from different points all over the field told too plainly how they were picking off our men. Those of us who had good cover had to stick to it though it was fearful to be there and listen to the calls of the wounded for help.
So we lay till dark & then crept out on hands and knees helping all the wounded where ever possible. By the time the moon rose we had them nearly all in, and none too soon, for as soon as they had moonlight they opened fire again.
By degrees we straggled away from the field trying to find our Regiment and ascertain the casualties. By 10 o'clock Campbell of Kamloops and I succeeded in finding our men and gladly took our ration of boiled beef & turned in, cold, tired and sick at heart.
Victoria lost most heavily, four men from that city falling in the charge. Our company lost most heavily in the Regt. and the total casualties in the Regiment are, I think, 83. 18 killed, 60 wounded, & 1 missing.
So we spent Sunday the 18th of February. On Monday morning we gathered up our dead and buried them side by side among a bunch of flowering mimosa trees.
The Regt. had a quiet day on outpost and spent the following night on outpost also.
Yesterday at daylight we marched directly towards the Boers laager and lay all day about 1500 yds from their position under cover of a slight rise, simply to prevent their escape while they were shelled from the ridge behind us by Naval guns and two batteries of artillery.
A terrific shelling failed to produce much visible impression but the slaughter must be awful in the laager. Yesterday afternoon they opened fire on our reserves with the dreaded "Pom-Pom" the Vickers Maxim automatic quick firer and wounded three men.
Today after a very chilly night spent on a kopje with one single blanket to three men or one rubber sheet to two men, the Brigade is ordered to rest as much as possible and there's no doubt we need it.
Now as to the action of our boys in the fight, After a night march of 22 miles they marched into the fight and stayed on the field for the record length of time from 5.30 a.m. to 7 p.m all on a pint of coffee and three or four biscuits.
We charged side by side with the crack corps of the British Army and foremost in the line of the dead the honours were even between the British troops and ourselves. On all hands our boys were congratulated on our coolness under fire and notably among the Canadians was the desire to help the wounded.
At this date 21st the battle is still on, the Boers holding out in hope of reinforcements. However they are surrounded by 40,000 British troops and their surrender is only a matter of time
I hear one of our men is going back to Belmont with a lame knee, being unfit for service so we shall have a chance to mail this.
We have all seen what war is now we have seen our dead and we feel that now the quarrel is certainly ours. We have one satisfaction however in knowing that that whatever else we run up against we are not likely to meet any thing worse than our Bateme de Feu.
Long before you get this you will have a correct list of the casualties I can only say that never shall we be able to replace Sergt. Scott, a more faithful, conscientious man in the execution of his duties it would he hard to find and following the loss by sickness of Color Sergt Holmes & Sergt Whimpster we are indeed badly off for non coms. Tho' well to the front not one of the Kootenay boys was wounded. Campbell of Kamploops had his puttee cut by a bullet passing between his leg and the ground & Rea of Mossland had his wrist pist scorched by a passing bullet.
We are all ready to go forward again at the word of command but we shall all be heartily glad when the war is over & our faces are turned homeward. I hope my next letter will bring word to this effect and that our boys may all be among the lucky ones returning.