Boatsheds to Battlefields 67 Boredom to Battle

The threatened attack on Upington did not materialize and Mick was detailed to take charge of the telephone at railhead. Here for a week, he stewed in a Turkish bath atmosphere cursing his ill-luck at ever abandoning the original idea of going straight to France.

The canteen was next to the telephone and the evaporation from his body caused by the hellish atmosphere demanded counteraction, Mick’s efforts on the telephone caused dissatisfaction at Headquarters so he was transferred to the charge of the Old Town pont.

The new billet Mick found incredibly monotonous and wearisome. There was no excitement, nothing of interest. The river at the town ferry was broad and deep, the pont substantial and the hawser secure enough to tow a battleship. Sitting on the pont ferrying troops, waggons, stores, animals backwards and forwards possessed little charm for a wild young devil full of temperament and emotionalism and Mick prayed for a change.

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It came…..

One night he slept at the Army pont landing stage – it was a perfect night. There were few rumours and Mick slept peacefully tired with the long weary day. Suddenly the night was shattered by a heavy burst of rifle fire and the boom of cannon.

Mick sprang from his blankets to see the portion of the country above his resting place alive with gun flashes – as he woke a shell moaning through the air burst above him, another followed and another.

“Thank the Lord God of Battles” quoth Mick his body filled with delicious tremors “the bloody war’s started.”

So it seemed – the Cape Field Artillery battery opened a spirited reply to the enemy artillery, burst after burst of heavy rifle fire told of troops attacking and defending, a commando armed with Martini-Henry rifles gave a realistic spectacle of old-fashioned warfare, the flame from their black powder cartridges streaming in red waves along their position.

Maxims began to clatter, vicious little pom-pom guns recalled poignant memories to Boer War veterans and shrapnel began to burst over the town. The news came rapidly. Maritz and Kemp their followers equipped by the Germans and supported by German Artillery were attacking with their full force.

Their advance guard had surprised and captured a commando doing outpost and Cossack duty. This command had hardly fired a shot, had been disarmed and allowed to run back to the town. A section of the Cape Field Artillery was rushed to the attacked end of the town supported by a squadron of the only reliable mounted regiment.

The arrival of the two guns and some determined troops had instantly quelled all ardour on the Rebel’s side but our artillery was inferior both in weight and number of guns to the Rebels, few of our troops were displaying any convincing enthusiasm so the issue was very uncertain, any real attack pushed home with vigour and moderate courage could hardly fail.

Daylight was breaking and Mick itching to join in the battle scornfully watched scores of local Burghers finding safe hiding places in the stacks of hay. He was on the South bank and immediately the pont laden with refugees from the town came over he went aboard and crossed to the North bank.

Here a comic interlude was provided by a thousand excited chattering Zulus, Amaxhosa and Swazi who crowding the bank watched with eager interest the progress of the fight. Now and again a shell bursting overhead spat its shrapnel viciously amongst them to be received with a deep-throated “Wow” followed by thunders of laughter, as a score of all but stricken natives leapt high in the air alarmed by the angry smacks and spurts of dust next to them.

“Wow, M’hlega!” roared one burly excited native to Mick “Ask the great Chief to give us sticks and we will hunt the rock rabbits.” A roar of applause rent the welkin – just then Mick saw a cloud of Rebels gallop furiously out of the dunes and ride at the guns –  through the streets of the town rode a regiment hell-for-leather to the support of artillery. 

Mad with excitement Mick begged permission to go up to the guns, it was granted and leaping on his horse which was already saddled, Mick raced up with a loaded rifle across his saddle.

The guns were only a few hundred yards away but by the time Mick arrived the spurt of bravery on the Rebels part had ceased. Once out of the dunes into the open country with shrapnel bursting overhead and a great body of horsemen galloping towards them the charge swerved and the Rebels raced back for shelter in spite of leaders flogging them mercilessly with sjamboks.

German South-West Africa, 1915. South African mounted troops prepare to advance into German Southwest Africa. Some South Africans opposed supporting the British and launched a short but unsuccessful rebellion.

Once again a long-range rifle and artillery duel started. The Cape Field Artillery got a direct hit on a Rebel eighteen-pounder. The loyalist commandoes encouraged by the results so far began to take an interest in the battle it was to end. Twelve hours of an enormous noise, of vast expenditure of ammunition, had ended – some twenty-six loyalists were killed and about the same number of Rebels.

Two thousand desperate traitors were in full retreat and two thousand gallant loyalists pursued them hotly – until the Rebels stopped – when the pursuit ended.  Mick’s first battle with over.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 65 Ginger Beer and Christmas 1914

End of 64th Entry: 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.

General Botha finding that neither the Rebels nor the Germans appeared desirous of meeting his forces withdrew all but a garrison and returned to Cape Town to prepare for an invasion of German South West Africa from its seaboard.

Louis Botha - Project Gutenberg eText 16462 - Louis Botha - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Louis Botha

The troops left at Upington consisted of a number of Cape Colony district regiments – mostly, if not trained at all, the bulk of them, Rebels at heart and very poor war material.

One fairly good regiment stiffened by a squadron of men from the Diamond Diggings, most of them Boer War veterans together with a battery of the Cape Field Artillery – youngsters but keen and plucky as terriers – formed the only reliable force.

Diamond Mining in South Africa (Illustration) World History Ethics Disasters STEM

Diamond diggings

Had either of the two Rebel leaders possessed any qualities of leadership, had their followers shown any soldierlike spirit, if the German Command had displayed any initiative, Upington with its rich collection of military stores, remounts, transport, animals and material would have been a plum so ripe as to fall to the merest touch.

One battery of field guns, a few machine guns, a company of good regular troops with a soldier in command would have taken Kakamas, Upington and probably the Gordonia district with hardly any opposition for what had they to contend with?

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Pictured is Manie Maritz in Upington during 1914

One battery of boys armed with old-fashioned guns, one Squadron of Veteran soldiers, and a large rabble of half-hearted armed men their retreat cut off by a great river; yet no move was made by their enemy. Evidently poor as was the defence material the other side was poorer.

Yuletide came – a few days before Mick was detailed to take some waggons laden with Christmas comforts to troops garrisoning the village of Kakamas some sixty miles down the river, for some reason, Viljoen at the last moment substituted two recent arrivals in Mick’s place. These men were of a low Boer type whose looks, manners and personalities disgusted the other Conductors who regarded them with unconcealed suspicion.

A few days later came the news that the Convoy had been captured by the Rebels. Black looks were cast on Viljoen whilst open murmurs regarding his past, and whispers of his former association with Maritz ended his former popularity.

11Rebels

Since General Botha’s departure, the Transport men had been gradually falling from their old happy-go-lucky life full of good comradeship and keen rivalry in work, feats of physical endurance and horsemanship – the old concerts had been abandoned and laughter or banter was seldom heard in the mess. Several causes were contributory.

Viljoen seemed to have lost interest in his men, the Officer-in-Charge was detested but the greatest factor was undoubtedly the many temptations to amass money easily.

In Prieska and Draghoender there had been no opportunity of testing the honesty of the men except that whiskey was obtained more plentifully and easily than could be accounted for. At Upington, the Conductors found scores of tiny canvas shelters advertising the sale of ginger beer. These lay en route from the rail-end dump of military stores to the pont dump.

Mick and his companions were employed in transporting the contents of the one dump to the other – a journey of about two miles. Both the loading and the offloading was unchecked – nothing was signed for, nobody tallied what was taken or delivered. It was the simplest thing in the world to husk off a bag of sugar, a case of boots, boxes of jam or bags of flour as the waggons passed the canvas shelter of the Yiddish ginger beer merchants.

The civilians were making small fortunes from the troops but found it almost impossible to get goods transported from Prieska. Every necessity was therefore at famine prices so a golden harvest awaited men who could supply footwear, foodstuffs and luxuries.

Mick though not adverse to getting an occasional bottle of whiskey in exchange for a pair of boots or any stray article, was not a thief, and the wholesale robbery going on around sickened him and one or two others. Relations became strained as each man chose his own road and became suspicious of his neighbours.

The Hangman transferred to the Natal Light Horse and departed to the German South West Seaboard, the ex-attorney was discovered in his speculations – too many seniors were involved however and he was allowed to resign and take up a civilian billet.

Then came Christmas – a concert was held at the Transport Officer’s billet, whiskey flowing in unlimited quantities until eventually half a dozen very far from sober men started back to camp. On arrival they found scores of the Coloured drivers fighting drunk, having stolen a couple of kegs of cape Brandy which the Conductors had got for the celebration of Christmas.

Viljoen began knocking the drunk men about and one, a half Bushman, half Hottentot, flung himself on the Head Conductor, a drawn knife in his hand. Viljoen full of drink staggered caught his foot against a stone and fell heavily, the Bushman on top.

Mick dived into his waggon, grabbed a rifle and ran back to see the Bushman raise the knife. Without an instant’s hesitation, Mick whirled up the rifle and brought its butt crashing down missing the Bushman’s head and shattering his thigh.

Freeing himself from the unconscious body Viljoen rose and ordered the Bushman to be tied to a tree. All night Mick shuddered as scream after scream of agony mingled with curses and threats against himself rang through the night.

In the morning the Bushman was released and handed over to the medical authorities – he was very weak, his thigh swollen enormously but he bore no grudge telling Mick that he knew he hadn’t hurt him deliberately and that he had told the doctor a waggon had run over him.

South African motor ambulance, c1914
(Photo: By courtesy, SANDF Documentation Centre).

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

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 63 Confusion and Excitement

End of 62nd Entry: 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.

“What does he do?” asked Mick feeling his pulses throb.

“Scouts, guides, hangs about on the skirts of enemy forces. Damned exciting, but mighty risky life” answered the trooper.

Mick gazed with awe on the Scout who was talking animatedly to Colonel Royston. Finishing his report the Scout accompanied by his two men walked over to a tent which served as a canteen. Mick following him in received a nod and summoning up courage asked the others to join him in a drink this proposal was promptly acquiesced in and the Intelligence man entered into conversation with the Rhodesian.

RoystonColonel Royston would later lead the 12th Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Force

To Mick’s amazement, he found the Scout another of his father’s numerous acquaintances, while excitedly he learnt that a large force of rebels was sweeping down on Draghoender.

“Lucky thing the Natal Light Horse have turned up,” said the Scout. “Old Kemp would have found a treasure store here – tens of thousands of fresh well-fed horses, mules waggons, oxen, stores of every description. He’s probably hard pressed by troops who have driven him through Bechuanaland and would look on a big Transport and Remount Camp as a gift from heaven.”

“You think then that there’s a chance about being attacked?” enquired Mick flushing with excitement.

“It will be a little short of a miracle if you aren’t.” Answered the Scout. “It’s a big country and though I hope we intersect them its long odds he’ll dodge the Natal Light Horse, sweep through the Transport; and off to join Maritz the other side of Upington. However, I must be a must be off.”

Swallowing another round of drinks the four left the tent to find the Natal Light Horse already detrained and in the saddle. As the Scout appeared Colonel Royston was in the act of moving off so with a wave to Mick, Gill vaulted into his saddle, his followers mounted more soberly and the three dashed off to the head of the column.

Losing no time Mick got his waggons loaded and returned to the Transport Camp some three miles away. Here he found all in confusion and excitement. The news has already arrived but no troops were available except a few hastily collected farmers all of whom were almost certainly rebels.

Viljoen with the Head Remount Conductor issued Mick and half a dozen others with rifles and ammunition bidding them ride to Draghoender, to place themselves at the disposal of the Transport Officer there. The Hangman was ordered to take a lightly loaded convoy after the Natal Light Horse.

At Draghoender a couple of score of armed Boers were leisurely making sandbag Defences round two huge dumps of stores brought thus far by train to be transported to Upington, Kakames and other places by road.

Mick though thirsting for an opportunity to see something of real warfare found little comfort in the appearance of his mates. Except for his few Transport Companions, the Defence Force looked hopeless as a fighting unit.

“Guess the moment they hear Kemp arriving they’ll turn us on.”  remarked one  Conductor grinning, “nasty looking crowd of bloody Rebels they look.”

The others agreed and an uncomfortable night past. With rifles loaded and cocked the Transport men watched their fellow defenders who in turn kept well in the shadows. Nothing happened however until late in the morning when Gill with his two attendants galloped in seeking reinforcements.

It appeared that Kemp during the night had ridden into the Natal Light Horse who badly knocked up by hard riding was snatching a brief rest. The Rebels had galloped through the camp killing and wounding a few of the Natal men but losing several themselves.

Royston was now hot on their tracks but freshmen were needed to intercept them on their right ride towards Upington. No men were available, however, and Gill after sending off various urgent telegrams once more took the direction from whence he had come.

Next day the troops passed in thousands train after train went cautiously along the line which was being laid at the rate of three to four miles a day. The country presented few natural obstacles so sleepers were simply flung down the rails, bolted on, and the trains crawled along the new line. Where riverbeds or watercourses appeared the banks were cut out and the train ran down one side and if lucky climbed the opposite one.

Last rail before Kalkfontein - Transnet Heritage Library (1)

Artillery, infantry, mounted men and Commandoes of Boers went by the Prime Minister General Botha in command.

At the Gate of Windhuk. General Botha discusses matters with the Governor of Windhuk

Prime Minister Louis Botha in the white suit

Amongst the passing troops, Mick found scores of old friends and acquaintances, with whom he exchanged a few brief greeting and experiences as the trains halted or crept by.

The same night the Transport Column by road for Upington, the Hangman had returned from his expedition with Royston full of enthusiasm for a soldier’s life. He and Mick though hardly bosom friends got on well together for the rough creature was unable to write his own name had attached himself like a dog to the young Rhodesian.

He had been very repentant over the Prieska incident, humbling himself into the dust. Mick’s temperament was not one which made it possible for him to bear a grudge nor was Mick particularly sensitive regarding either the character or appearance of his friends.

To Mick throughout his life, a man was to be judged purely by frontier standards. Given courage, endurance, ability to be a cheerful comrade, and to be moderately honest in dealing with his own mates there was no reason why one shouldn’t go partners with him, whether he was the Public Hangman or a Missionary.

So Mick listened avidly to the Hangman’s Tales of the fight on the Newbury Estate, accepted a Natal Light Horse rifle one of the two the Hangman had picked up on the battlefield and made up his mind to join a fighting unit on the first opportunity.

And old friend McLeod had been sent to join the convoy. Mick greeted Mac’s advent with joyous glee. The newcomer was a typical example of the British Adventurer having spent practically all his life in wondering about the world doing anything which came to his hand.

He had been a Secret Service Agent, a Trooper in the Cape Mounted Police, had fought through the Boer War in an Irregular Corps, had gone through the Zulu Rebellion and had received a war medal from the German Government for services in connection with the rounding up and capture of Hottentot rebels.

BATTLE OF BHAMBATHA AND THE DEATH OF BHAMBATHA ZONDI

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 61 War, Whiskey, and Women

End of 60th Entry: Swimming his horse around the mob Mick regained the shore, lit his pipe and chattered with his mates until the drove was ready to once again gallop back to its camp.

Mick found no members of a Young Men’s Christian Association amongst his fellow conducters. 

The Head Conductor, Vijoen, a huge hard bitter man had been a secret service agent of the Old Transvaal Republic. The story had it that on the day Lord Roberts entered Johannesburg, Vijoen had shot two Australian officers whilst an Armistice was on. For this, he had been sentenced to death, to be later reprieved and banished from South Africa. He had gone to the Argentine which had eventually found him too desperate a character for even that tough country.

Returning to Africa Viljoen joined Colonel Maritz then a transport conductor in the Germans Service. The Germans were at war with the Hottentots and the rough conditions suited Viljoen to the ground. Some trouble arose between him and Maritz which resulted in Viljoen being fastened to a waggon wheel and mercilessly flogged. Forsaking the German Service Viljoen wandered into Bechuanaland where he traded and hunted until the Great War broke out.

Jan Kemp, unknown rebel, Manie Maritz at Keetmanshoop in “German West

Another was an ex-attorney who had been struck off the Rolls for some reason and had led a shadowy life ever since. A third was a racecourse man whose life was regarded with suspicion, and a fourth, Mick’s billet mate was a cab driver who, the story went added the post of Assistant Hangman to his more prosaic occupation.

By some means or other, the Transport men seemed to have an arrangement with a hotel proprietor by which whiskey was supplied free apparently without limit. Mick until then had rarely drunk except out of bravado but now he fell easily.

He liked the company. Rough and wild though they were, unsavoury characters perhaps in civilian life they might be, yet all were old campaigners of the Boer and Frontier Wars and made good companions in the present type of life. They fed well, handled natives and animals with uncanny skill, shirked nothing in the way of danger or work and lived entirely for the day.

Mick found he could drink glass for glass with the others, work unafraid with them amidst a chaotic mass of wild frightened animals, handle natives, mules or horses with the best. The young Rhodesian, therefore, dropped readily into the life.

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There were no troops actually in Prieska – the Transport men as yet ranked as civilians and Viljoen was apparently the Commander-in-Chief. Discipline was practically non-existent except as regarded the actual work in the Transport camp itself.

In spite of very heavy drinking scarcely any untoward incidents occurred for the work taxed every fibre and muscle so that the alcohol was sweated out almost as soon as it entered the system. The heat was terrific, the work was not only heavy physical labour but work that needed all a mans’ wits to be ever on the alert to preserve his life.

A drunken man would not have lasted five minutes working in the midst of a few hundred untamed mules or horses. Death or at best, broken bones would have been his portion immediately. Most probably the very act of concentration required to preserve mastery over an inflamed brain caused the alcohol to act purely as a stimulant.

In any case, sober men would never have continued at the pressure demanded of Transport Conductors at that time. Nerves and muscle would have wilted under the strain but as it was the alcohol acted as paraffin cast at intervals on steadily burning fires.

Mick had one or two narrow escapes from disaster. He and his mates were accustomed to race through Prieska as hard as their horses could gallop. Several children and civilians thereby escaped death by the fraction of an inch.

One night shortly after Mick’s arrival, the daughter of the house had a visitor, a civilian policeman. The two retired into the sitting room and a good many hours past. Now the ex-cabby and supposed hangman was not a man whose moral character was above fear and reproach. He thought the girl easy game and made a suggestion that on the departure of the policeman he and Mick should, in turn, share the lady’s favours.

Mick held rather high ideals but the life was having a wearing effect upon them. Although he felt repugnant he yet dallied with the idea, protesting as a matter of conscience, but not taking any decisive stand.

During the early hours of the morning, the policeman departed and the hangman immediately slipped into the sitting room to be received with screams of fear and anger. Mick instantly ran in to find a weeping girl, the hangman in his shirt and the girl’s mother violently protesting.

The hangman ordered the woman to clear out, cursed Mick and caught hold of the girl. Mick jumped in but received a blow which half stunned him. Instantly the Rhodesian ran into his bedroom, returned with a loaded revolver and the hangman seeing murder blazing in his comrade’s eyes loosened the girl and delayed not in his return to his bedroom.

Mick followed him seething with rage to be met by a roar of laughter from the immoral one who produced a bottle of whiskey. The two speedily dismissed the past event from their minds and apparently were the best of friends.

That evening there was some particularly hard-drinking which ended in the hangman becoming fighting drunk. He cursed Mick, insulted him and finally left with the avowed intention of riding the hell out of Mick’s horse – an animal Mick worshipped.

Mick started after him protesting and threatening – turning the hangman sent the lash of his stockwhip hissing through the air, gave a quick turn of the wrist and the cruel hide cut the Rhodesian’s face to the bone – instantly Mick howling with rage and pain drew his revolver. The hangman leaping into the saddle dashed off. 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.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 57 Legion of Frontiersmen Recruits Wanted

End of 56th Entry: That summed up the situation Mr Osmond telling the three Rhodesians that during the day their best course was to go into town and investigate conditions before attempting to decide on their future policy.

After a good sleep and hearty breakfast, the trio proceeded to Cape Town where Mick, arranging to meet his companions later, began a round of interviews.

Calling at the Castle he endeavoured to enlist in a Defence Force Unit. The Colonel, an old family friend took his details but had no authority to enlist anyone – so fared Mick in half a dozen other attempts – calling at the Drill Hall he found a British Battalion just arrived from the North. Here he was informed that recruits were being accepted and was told to report at 9am the following morning.

Mick turned away feeling as though on the brink of a precipice. He intended going overseas and here was his chance, but he felt incredibly lonely at the thought of going as a private soldier in a battalion of utter strangers, felt too, the Colonial’s instinctive prejudice against the stern discipline of a regular line battalion and craved to be with mounted men of his own type.

Shrugging his shoulders Mick went off to be attracted by the painted words “Legion of Frontiersmen” over a doorway and beside the door “Recruits Wanted” calling in Mick interviewed a hard-faced citizen who after taking his particulars – Cadet training – four years Bush life – excellent education etc. ushered him into an inner office where half a dozen tougher citizens were grouped around a table. Introducing Mick the hard-faced man retired and a grizzled old veteran put the Rhodesian through a searching catechism.

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“All, right Son, we’ll enlist you in the Legion,” he said at length – “As yet we have not been officially recognised, but we’re expecting a cable any minute accepting our services as a unit to act in any capacity, mounted, infantry or special services. Parade at 5 p.m.” Filling in and signing a form, Mick felt infinitely better.

A couple of days went past. Mick put in some hard drill with a crowd that reminded him of the Anglican prayer for “All sorts and conditions of men.” but no acceptance came of the Legion’s offer of service which had been communicated to both the Imperial and Union governments. Mick inwardly grinning at the thought wondered if both Governments considered letting loose the crowd he had met on a civilized nation was contrary to the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Meanwhile, the South African Labour Party were enlisting men on behalf of the departing Imperial battalions. Mick’s agreement with the Legion allowed him to join any fighting unit in the interval before the services of the Legion were accepted. After he had passed without apparently being any nearer the firing line, Mick with Taffy, (the third having joined the Garrison Artillery),  put his name down for the Essex Regiment and came home with an armlet which in bold blood red the words Labour Legion were emblazoned on a white background.

It was September 1914. Michael Osmonds’ parents, relatives and friends belonged to the old world of ancient families to whom their order was their religion. Labour men were classified anarchists, nihilists, vagabonds and rogues and even Mick himself when out of sight of the Labour Party’s recruiting table took off the fatal armlet, and gazed upon it  with deep suspicion mixed with feelings that he had committed sacrilege, sold himself to the Evil One, and become a member of a Secret Society. 

Putting the armlet in an inside pocket Mick proceeded to have a drink then went home wondering how he was to break the news. He felt that had he simply enlisted as a private soldier in a British battalion the family would not have offered the slightest opposition, only have sympathized with him and regretted his being companionless in his venture. To, however, join via a back door such as the Labour Legion would convince him that he had lost his reason.

“Wonder why the blazers I did,” he remarked to himself “I wish that I’d joined up with that last regiment –  I’ve a damn good mind to push off to the Docks and work my passage over.” This determination was greatly strengthened by the reception his step met with at home – a reception which more than fulfilled his expectations.

Now, most of Mick’s spare time since arriving from Rhodesia had been divided between his fianceé and the Transport Office. Here he with various friends became an absolute pest in their endeavours to find acceptance of their services in the transport conveys.

On Mick’s plunge into the Labour Legion Mr Osmond aroused himself to find a loophole of escape for his son – armed with letters of introduction, Mick interviewed various influential men, then once again turned his face towards this Transport Office and sending in a letter to the Commanding Officer he waited a while, was asked to follow an orderly into the Presence and after being asked a few questions came out wreathed in smiles.

He was engaged as a conductor of Transport at 7/6 per diem and rations. A uniform would be issued if required, on the Repayment system. Duties were to commence immediately.

For three days Mick lived next to the Dock gates working on unpacking and fitting harness, trucked a few mules and generally having an easy time. From Ordnance stores, he was issued with Bedford cord riding breeches, brown boots and leggings, a slouch hat and khaki tunic with stiff cardboard lined green collar and cuffs. He also drew a big Webly Revolver with ammunition, so felt himself a last to be a member of the armed forces of the Crown.

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Meanwhile Mick’s love affair came to an end – in many ways still only a schoolboy all Mick’s thoughts and attention concentrated on his new life – he hoped the German West business would be over in a week or two and that then he would get a chance to get Home with either or South African or Rhodesian Expeditionary Force or with some chums.

Three days after receiving his appointment Mick was ordered to proceed early next morning to the Maitland main transport depot, as one of a detail of conductors who would take charge of a large number of transport waggons and animals. On receiving the animals the conductors would drive them to the docks, ship them and proceed to one of the Theatres of War.

Next day the detail of six transport conductors and one head conductor proceeded out to the Remount Camp on the Cape Flats some six miles from Cape Town where they were issued with horses – with lively curiosity they then rode to the Transport Camp and to their disgust took over one thousand three hundred and twenty sad looking donkeys together with a hundred and fifty Cape Coloured men to act as drivers and leaders.

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Mick had drawn a really good grey horse with a beautiful action. The horse seemed to have been a pet as it was particularly well cared for, especially considering it to have been issued from a great heard of Remount horses running loose in open paddocks.

The Rhodesian, therefore, felt that drive from Maitland to the Cape Town Docks as one of the greatest events in this life. The huge grey drove of donkeys herded by shouting Coloured men, himself with half a dozen others in picturesque army dress riding around the drove heavy revolvers slung over their shoulders, short handled 25ft lashed stockwhips in their hands all made his mind bring back boyhood memories of wild Argentine Cowboys driving up the mobs of mules, horses and cattle from the Docks in the now distant Boer War days.

Then he had been one of the onlookers watching with lively curiosity and interest what appeared denizens from another world. Now he felt that hundreds watched him with the same feelings.

“Damn shame we’ve got donkeys,” he thought “Jove it would have been thrilling driving a thousand mules or horses through Cape Town.”.

At the Docks, animals were shipped into an old cargo steamer. A northerly gale was blowing with a heavy see running outside the Breakwater, and Mick grinned as he looked at his fellow conductors all of whom were typical Bush countrymen. From these men, his eyes wandered to the gay chatting coloured folk bidding farewell to numerous relations of either sex, all colours, shapes and sizes. Guitars, banjos, concertinas and fiddles were wailing, tears flowing mixed with laughter as the brown people all their feelings, surface ones, revelled in the emotions of the moment.

The Queensland had already loaded sixty transport waggons each of which would be pulled by twenty-two donkeys. Immediately the donkeys and men had been shipped hawsers were cast off, the tugs busily hauled her into the fairway and with the threshing screw, the tramp began her voyage.

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.