From Boatsheds to Battlefields 66 Lightning and Maddened Horses

End of 65th Entry: Shortly afterwards the Orange River came down in flood. When it came the mass of water arrived like a tidal wave.

Many of the troops were encamped in the dry river bed and islands. The men got away with their horses but their equipment, great quantities of stores and much of the bridge material together with some of the half-built piers went downstream.

The Rebels now began to threaten the town. Several bodies of Defence Force men were captured outside Upington without them firing a shot, the Rebels laughingly stripping them of their horses, rifles and equipment sending them back to Upington to be re-equipped.

PT-Manie_Maritz-Upington-1914-2

Pictured is Manie Maritz and his force entering Upington 

The congestion of transport supplies, owing to the flood had made the ford impassable, was now tremendous – the river rose day after day and it was known that weeks would elapse before it would be fordable again.

The water too was running in two great, and half a dozen lesser channels cutting the big town pont off from its southern approach. It was just possible to cross the new big stream though the danger was great.

Mick had now a new honour bestowed upon him. Donkeys drew loaded waggons to the brink of the stream, where they were unhooked, teams of picked mules taking their places. Mick mounted on a powerful horse, himself stripped to nature’s garment, fastened a rope from the leading off mule of a team to his saddle and rode into the stream.

The Coloured driver his leader holding the reins, himself wielding the long bamboo whipstick with its twenty-five-foot lash urged on the sixteen mules. Encouraging the horse with voice and rhinoceros hide sjambok, Mick swam his mount across keeping the rope taut and helping with all his power to hold the mules’ heads slightly upstream.

Boer sjambok whip, 1901 (c)

Boer sjambok whip, 1901 (c)

In one hand he gripped a keen-bladed knife ready to instantly sever the rope if the mules once allowed the force of the current to turn their heads down. If this happened, nothing could save the mules, waggon or the natives as the stream would instantly carry them into the boiling mill race of water.

It was strenuous, exciting work crammed with thrilling moments and Mick loved every minute, especially when on one occasion, a little more decently clad he conducted an ambulance filled with hospital nurses across the stream.

Within a few days of the coming of the flood, several whaleboats with Malay crews arrived. The military pont was now in full working order so something of control was established.

Then one night in the pouring rain came the news that an immediate attack was being threatened on Upington. Supplies of ammunition were rushed up to the pont and whaleboats, but there the loading gangs of Amaxosa refused to carry on saying that they were weary.

Mick tried blandishment in vain, resorted to commands and was laughed at, grew furious and drawing his revolver threatened them instantly a jeering angered mass of men belonging to the finest warlike race in the world surged down on Mick. Sticks were brandished, stones flung and only the quick action of an overseer who gave Mick’s horse a cut with a stick saved bloodshed for the Rhodesian was on the point of firing.

The horse a spirited one in perfect condition reared, swerved and bolted. Mick losing his revolver barely managed to retain his seat, and on recovering control and returning to the scene was ordered to take charge of the pont.

It was his first experience of the work and the night was black, pouring with rain, split by pillars and jagged zigzag flashes of lightning – the river roaring past an angry dark flood crested with white, neither sounded nor the flashes of lightning, looked as though venturing on it could be possible. To add to Mick’s disquiet he was ordered to be very careful as a strand had gone in the hawser.

The first load was a section of Mounted Infantry with their horses Mick – Mick his marrow turning to water gave the order to pull off the shore, hauled up the nose of the pont and tried to slacken off aft. Something jammed and the pont already in the current began to tip whilst in an instant water came flowing over it.

The horses frightened started to rear and plunge, the Burghers terrified clinging to the bridles began to shout and their officer dropping on his knees prayed loudly to his God, sparing intervals to curse Mick, the war and the Orange River.

horse rain

Mick worked feverishly at trying to free the jam in the block but he was in pitch darkness broken only by terrific lightning flashes. Working on a raft filled with half maddened horses and men, lying out in pouring rain amidst roaring welts of rushing, angry water, one could only go by sense of touch nor was it easy to move on the packed pont. 

The jam was for’rad but the difficulty was to thrust a way through the rearing plunging horses and shrieking men. Mick crawled along the hawser his body waist deep in water succeeded in freeing the jam, and the current catching the stern drove the pont flying into the darkness ahead.

Landing his men Mick returned but in midstream, a second strand parted. The trips were now almost suicidal but Mick succeeded in making three more crossings before the third strand went.

Orders were then given to stop further work and luckily so for a few minutes later the hawser parted.

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