From Boatsheds to Battlefields 55 Heading off to War on the Mail Train

End of 54th Entry: The War would be over long before he got there while in any case, it was a war of regular armies, not one for untrained men or Irregular forces.

Returning to the estate Mick received a visit from his friend the Ranch Manager who took a different view. The war would last, Britain required every man and the sooner one joined up the better for his honour – he himself was half crippled so stood no earthly chance of being accepted, but as his initial share he would pay Mick’s fare to Cape Town.

Mick’s duty lay beyond the seas – plenty of men unfit for service could take over the carrying on of the Country’s usual business. He would send over a horse for Mick that afternoon and he could catch the mail train South two days after.

Mick filled with joy accepted immediately – the cattleman galloped off leaving Mick to write a letter to his employers explaining the circumstances, to arrange with the natives about carrying on until the new manager arrived to dispose of his kit.

Mick went up deciding where he sold his rifle – returning he gathered his staff together held an auction sale of his belongings and with a blood horse between his knees dashed off towards the fourteen-mile distant ranch.

Next day Mick spent in a last happy day amongst the big game. Waterbuck, Zebra and Sable were very plentiful but with a mind aflame on the coming days Mick’s shooting was vile, eventually after missing numerous easy shots he secured a fine Sable Antelope cow – his pleasure vanished when the baby calf came bawling round its dead mother, remaining next to the body to later follow the waggon back to camp. Attempts to catch it proved fruitless.

Next day the Ranch Manager rode with Mick to the siding, unforeseen circumstances delayed their departure from the ranch so that when nearing the station they saw the fast approaching smoke of the train. A wild race ended in Mick flinging himself from the saddle to dash at an already moving train.

Helped by friendly hands he scrambled aboard amidst a thunder of cheers from a densely packed trainload and a knot of district folk at the siding. (Sixteen years later a lady then present laughing over the incident mentioned that throughout the war the incident had often been remembered and held as the way a man should respond to the Call of the Flag.)

Mick found the train crowded to suffocation point with Rhodesians, 90% of them on their way to the Colours – every class, every type was represented. There were men who had not seen civilization four years, family Black Sheep, younger sons – men who made good; men who had not.

Some came from lonely prospecting camps, others from the cattle ranches. Many were home born, many Colonial Old Pioneers, ex-Royal North-West Mounted, men who had been sailors. Men who had held commissioned rank in the Regulars. Paying his fair to Bulawayo and being told by the guard to get a ticket to Cape Town at Bulawayo Mick was shoved into a Second Class compartment with already five occupants.

One turned out to be a young Welshman mining down the Mazoe, another an ex-captain of the Royal Field Artillery and Indian Army, now a mining man, the other three being nondescripts.

The bulk of the men travelling on the train had converted all easy negotiable securities into ready cash and filled with excitement, unaccustomed companionship and the herd-feeling spent their money like water. The result was that soon a large percentage were in anything but a sober condition – few were drunk, but at the same time hardly any preserved any semblance of caution in dealing with chance companions.

Mick and the Welshman returning from the dining salon saloon found the ex-artillery Captain half dazed trying to explain to a sceptical conductor and a crowd of amused onlookers that he’d been drawn into a card game, drugged and robbed by the other three inmates of the compartment. As it happened a couple of passengers, men of standing, recognised two of the accused as being well-known Crooks and the Artilleryman proved that he was a man of substance well known in mining circles. The crooks all three of them were promptly subjected to severe hustling and the train stopping at a Bechuanaland siding were put overboard into the dark and lonely night.

As far as Kimberly the journey was uneventful but when the Rhodesian mail steamed in, it was to find station packed with troop trains –  The Natal Field Artillery, Kaffarian Rifles and a dozen other units. From then on the mail crept slowly along continually being sidetracked to allow troop trains to pass. Every minute was a delight to the Rhodesians – batteries of artillery, trainloads of soldiers, truckloads of horses – bugles and trumpets sounding, with everywhere the sharp bark of army commands.

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It brought the first taste of war to the eager nostrils of the men from the Rhodesian bush going to war in defence of life, liberty, hearth and home. The wolfhounds of a warrior nation hungering, thirsting for the wild clamour of battle, the pomp and panolpy of war – Children of the Red Gods hastening to harvest. Throughout the wide wide world, others of their kin were rushing homewards from the ice floes of Labrador, the Savage Klondyke, the scorching Australian deserts, the fever jungle of New Guinea.

“God! but this is good”, remarked a grizzled old veteran to an eager strapping youth “These Union lads are young but excellent material. Keen as mustard and fine physique”

“You don’t think Dad you’ll have any difficulty in getting into a regiment?” asked the other.

“Regimental age, thirty-six me lad – a wee touch of hair dye, thank God my teeth are sound, thirty years of soldering all over the world – Dammit if the army is troublesome I’ll join the French.”

Food gave out on the train, drink came to an end, Mick and many others finished their last penny – the train was already a couple of days late but at station bars and stores, from the boyish troops of the Union Defence Force – lads eighteen to twenty-one came help and hospitality.

Then came a whisper through the long train – the German spies or Dutch rebels had blown up two troop trains on the Hex River Pass. Hundreds of lads were killed, the trains halted and the rumours increased – there was a possibility of attack at any moment – most of the inhabitants of the surrounding country were red hot rebels and what a glorious chance to wipe out old Boer War grudges, thousands of sons of English and loyal Dutch without ammunition penned like sheep in the many troop trains.

The more authentic news came – an accident had happened, one troop train had left the rails resulting in a heavy casualty list, but luckily in a portion of the Pass where a brow had stopped the train from landing in the Hex River a thousand feet below.

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The trains steamed on into Touws River where already poor mangled bodies were being carried from railway carriages. The few white women of the neighbourhood – young girls, matrons, old women, all kindly Dutch, laboured like trained nurses, freely putting their cottages and houses at the disposal of the Commanding Officers.

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“By God, the lads are proper cubs of the Old Lion,” said a Rhodesian whose life had been passed leading men in Frontier Wars. “Only schoolboys and they’ve the discipline of veterans – none rushing to look at the casualties, everyone cool, calm and collected, the poultice wallahs working like R.A.M.C. men – they’ve passed their preliminary test with honours – rotten thing thousands of children straight from their homes, all singing and happy to suddenly be flung into a mass of Death and mangled bodies – good training though as for casualties – killed and wounded on active service – counts just the same as actual battle casualties.

Late the next afternoon the line cleared the trains moved on,  through the tunnel and out of the vast lonely Karoo into a glorious world of mountain peaks, smiling valley and brawling hill burns. Twisting and turning like serpents the long procession of heavily laden trains crawled round the cutting powerful engines before and behind holding their burdens of precious freight.

One thought on “From Boatsheds to Battlefields 55 Heading off to War on the Mail Train

  1. Another great chapter with excellent pics to describe the nervous tension and excitement of all these youngsters rushing to support their Homeland and fight in WW1 for their mother countries.

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