From Boatsheds to Battlefields 62 A Bishop, Confession and Employment

End of 61st Entry: Mick emptied three chambers after him sending the dust spurting around the galloping horse. The Head Conductor leaping forward knocked Mick senseless and the affair was over.

Next afternoon happened to be a slack one – the Conductors were sitting outside the Mess Room, some sipping whiskey, some tea. To their amazement, a real live Bishop of the Anglican Church strolled by looking hot, tired and forlorn.

Viljoen always courteous went over to the prelate and invited him to join his group. The very Reverend gentleman thankfully accepted – it was 110°F/43°C in the shade, unsuitable weather for episcopal garments.

The guest proved a man. It appeared that before taking Orders he had served as a trooper in a Hussar Regiment in the Regular Army. A son of his had recently fallen in France – he himself had spent many years in Zululand.

The Conductors at first shy and awkward began to thaw as the bishop showed a deep understanding and interest in their work, their ideas regarding the war, and their thoughts on the future. Evening fell the Bishop accepted an invitation to dinner, sipped his whiskey and kept everyone anxious to show his best side.

Dinner, a cheerful meal, came to an end.  The Bishop pleaded for an opportunity of hearing the camp orchestra – the same coloured men who had accompanied Mick on the Port Nolloth voyage – the orchestra greatly flattered came and gave of their best.

The setting was perfect – overhead a sky of the desert nights rich with stars, low hanging warm, mysterious – about them the vast, sparsely inhabited, treeless country running into the unknown Kalahari.

Around the fires of dried sheep dung lay or sat the band of wild looking Conductors, the Bishop in the midst. Further away the orchestra squatted, surrounded by a mass of light-hearted, music-loving coloured folk; with here and there the black face and stalwart body of a man of one of the warlike tribes, Xhosa, Zulu, Basuto, Swazi.

Plantation melodies, Irish ballads, Dutch songs – all but forgotten ditties of the Boer War days – hymns beloved by children and Coloured people the world over. Then came God Save The King – a pause – and Viljoen the deep religious strain of the South African Dutch strong within him asked the Bishop to say a few words to offer up a prayer for the souls of a band of sinful men.

A short direct address was given – a man knowing the frontier folk and frontier lives, to frontier men. A brief appeal to the Lord God, The Creator of the World to judge kindly those He had sent into the rough wild places.

The Bishop shook hands all round – Mick who had been very quiet the evening and who had tried to drown a thousand emotions of homesickness, regrets, and memories fell down as he shook hands – enraged he clapped saddle on his horse and with a mate insisted on escorting the Bishop to his quarters.

Early next morning Mick went to Confession.

After a fortnight or so at Prieska orders came for the Transport and Remount Depot to be moved by road to Draghoender, the railhead of the railway line in course of construction to Upington.

In pre-war days, Prieska had been the rail end from which the territories adjoining the Kalahari were served by donkey transport. After the outbreak of war the railway had been continued towards Upington a hundred miles away. A town which served as a centre to a chain of irrigation settlements along the Orange River as well as the great Gordonia district,  a land where sheep farms of a quarter of a million acres were not uncommon.

For the first time since joining the Transport Service, Mick was now employed on the service for which he had been engaged. Each Conductor had charge of ten waggons drawn by mules, donkeys or oxen.

Mick was with the mule column in command of twenty Coloured men, a hundred and sixty mules and ten heavy transport waggons each carrying a load of nine thousand pounds. The roads were knee deep in fine floury dust, the temperature in the sun averaged 160°F/71°C – water was scarce along the road, what there was of it being brackish as to be almost undrinkable whilst grazing was non-existent. A drought had lain for some years on the land whose appearance vividly recalled to Mick his life at Carnarvon.

Most of the travelling was done at night the day being given to resting men and animals, greasing waggons or overhauling harness.

Four days were spent on the road all of which time was one of intense enjoyment to Mick as he galloped up and down his train of waggons, superintended the negotiation of stretches of heavy sand or badly worn patches of road.

Namaqualand_Railway_mule_train

There was plenty to do, seeing that every animal pulled its weight, or was inspanned in the position which build and temperament suited it best, in keeping the waggons well up to one another, in getting through bad places, in having waggons kept greased, their bolts tight, the gear oiled and in order.

Draghoender was reached at last and once more the routine of Prieska was resumed – not for long, however, for a few days after their arrival, a body of troops rode in from the Front. They turned out to be the Natal Light Horse who had spent months chasing rebels amongst the sand dunes of the Orange River.

staticmap

Since taking the field the regiment had been everlastingly on the move far from any stores – their clothing was in rags and taters, few had shaved for weeks and the once spick and span squadrons appeared more like bands of brigands than British soldiers.

CPJ1AY (1)

On arrival, the Natal Light Horse were issued with fresh horses and rode to the railhead to entrain for Cape Town on their way to join the troops operating in Germany West itself. Mick with a few waggons was at the station eagerly chatting to some of the troopers when a spare clean-shaven man accompanied by two Dutchman galloped in.

“That’s Gill the Intelligence man,” remarked one of the troopers turning to gaze at him.

 

2 thoughts on “From Boatsheds to Battlefields 62 A Bishop, Confession and Employment

    1. I know I had to double check the Fahrenheit conversion a couple of times. The drought which is like that happening here in NSW and Queensland is frightening. I love the name Draghoender – makes me chuckle – not sure why!

      Like

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