End of 63rd Entry: The coming of McLeod, a man of gentle birth, classical education and great charm made a great difference to Mick for Mick was becoming a bit weary of his life and companions.
So far the War had hardly come near the Rhodesian. The work and his mates were of much the same type he had always been accustomed to. December had come, three months had passed in the Army without hearing a shot fired in anger – hardly any troops had been seen.
“It’s a damn fraud, Mac,” he said “Nothing but work and not a bit of excitement. I’m sick of whiskey, sick of this crowd of toughs, sick to death of mules.”
MacLeod laughed “The War’s young yet,” he answered “Take it from me Old Man a war’s never what its cracked up to be. So far the infantry regiments have done pure navvy work, laying railway lines, marching, digging – scarcely a shot fired except against the Rebels and there its been like a sham fight – heaps of powder burnt with darn few casualties. It’s a pretty decent war so far, but things are beginning to move now so we ought to hear rifles crack soon.”
Three days of travel brought the Transport Column to Upington where they camped on the South bank of the river opposite the little frontier town. In times of normal flow, the river ran in a broad yellow stream against the Northern bank on which the town was built.
Between the river itself and the true Southern side lay a broad stretch of white sand in dunes, old river beds and flood time watercourses, all of which were fringed with trees and dotted with densely wooded islands.
The road from Prieska led through this expanse to a large island next to which the river flowed. From this ground, a thick wire hawser was spun to a landing stage below the town on which a large pont capable of loading two waggons with their teams, was hauled backwards and forwards.
When the river was sluggish, four or more natives standing on the side of the pont, hauled it across the river by pulling on the hawser to which the pont was secured with ropes working through pulleys – when there was any current the bows of the pont were hauled close into the hawser, the stern slackened off and the current catching the pont at an angle drove it across the stream.
When Mick’s column arrived engineers with huge gangs of natives were busy building across the river, and meanwhile, waggons were crossing both on the pont and being dragged through a shallow ford.
The railway had reached to within two miles of the river and the South Bank Transport depot immediately began to remove stores and material from the great dumps accumulating at the railhead. From here the waggons carted everything either directly to the pont or directly to the river. The congestion was terrible so a military pont was constructed above the old town one.
Before leaving Draghoender the Conductors had been transferred from a civilian status to a military one ranking as senior non-commissioned officers in the South African Service Corps (Transport and Remount Section).
A Captain had been placed in command with Viljoen as his Regimental Sergeant Major. The change in many ways was unpopular, the officers did not win either respect or liking of the men whilst Viljoen seemed to lose interest in the work. What had been a happy-go-lucky family, devoted to the Chief and taking rough or smooth with equal cheerfulness, soon grew into a set of discontented individuals.
On their arrival, all for a few days were greatly excited and happy. The journey from Draghoender had been a welcome change from fitting out convoys while all knew that they were now, at last, getting into the real war zone.
Upington they found alive with troops including one or two crack South African regiments. The two regiments of the Imperial Light Horse were both of these, and the day previous to the arrival of the Transport Column, a brisk skirmish had taken place between them and the rebel Kemp, whom the Imperial Light Horse had intercepted in his flight.
Imperial Light Horse scouts on horseback
(From the First World War diary of P W Hunter,
Imperial Light Horse, by courtesy, DNMMH)
The Imperial Light Horse had suffered several casualties and were furious as they had driven the Rebels into a circle of Boer commandoes. Kemp was in a position which made resistance impossible but through treachery or foolishness on the part of a Commando he was allowed to escape with his whole force and join up with Maritz the renegade.