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.

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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 60 Wild, Free and Dangerous

End of 59th Entry: The new destination was Prieska in the North-West of Cape Colony where forces were being assembled to operate against the Dutch rebels.

It is now October 1914. Throughout the Union, thousands of traitor Dutch had risen in open revolt choosing the time of Britain’s need to betray their oaths, their fellow countrymen, their race and their nation.

It was not like a rebellion of Irishmen against a foreign power holding Ireland by the might of armed occupation. It was an absolute fouling of their own nest by a traitorous section of a nation. 

Beyers the Commandant General of the Union, Colonel Maritz, General Kemp, the famous De Wet with other leaders used their personal influence to lead thousands of ignorant Boers into the armed rebellion.

Fortunately, South Africa possessed honourable men worthy of the grand ancient names of Holland and France which they bore. General Botha, the Premier of South Africa, a man against whose honour, courage and wisdom no man, friend or foe has ever cast stone rallied the mass of Dutch South Africa – ably seconded by General Smuts, by many of the famous Boer generals and leaders of the old Republican forces who for three long years fought Britain’s might General Botha dealt swiftly and surely with the renegades.

Disdaining the leprous section who attempted to sit on the fence egging on the armed rebels but fearing to risk their own skins, General Botha and Smuts took the field in person.

De Wet and most of the leaders of the Free State and Transvaal rebels were soon in gaol, their bands were broken up and dispersed. General Beyers was shot whilst fleeing across a river in flood.  One or two brigands were executed and Kemp chased through the Kalahari. At Upington, he was surrounded but the loyal troops were forbidden to fire and he was allowed a chance, quickly availed of, to escape and link up with his fellow rebel Manie Maritz.

The surrender of General de Wet.
(Photo: By courtesy, SANDF Doc Ctr)

General Botha having then crushed the rebellion with the use of mostly Boer forces began to once more resume operations against the Germans.

Meanwhile, Mick’s train after six days of monotonous and wearing jolting arrived at Prieska late at night. The train had again and again been sidetracked for many a weary hour, all kinds of difficulties had been experienced in feeding and especially in watering the animals and the men were incredibly sore, tired and quarrelsome.

Their troubles ended with the journey. A fresh detail of transport men took over the offloading of the animals after their riding horses had been taken out of the trucks and guided by Head Conductor who had been in charge of Mick’s Cape Town depot, the party cantered through the town to where the whole staff of Transport and Remounts were billeted.

A smoking meal of fried steak, onions, potatoes and bread with unlimited whiskey and hot coffee awaited them at the Heat Conductor’s billet. Their wants satisfied the newcomers were then taken to billets Mick finding himself together with a companion detailed to a large house which contained a pretty daughter a girl of eighteen.

The quarters were good. The two men shared the guestroom sleeping together in a huge old-fashioned four-poster bed. Their meals were to be taken across the road at theHeat Conductor’s billet where a transport mess had been formed.

At daybreak, the morning after their arrival Mick and his mate on reporting to theHeat Conductor had a Coloured batman detail to them and were told that when not on duty they were to remain in the vicinity of the mess so as to be handy if required.

Tens of thousands of animals – horses, mules, donkeys and oxen were being concentrated at Prieska. From dark, in the morning until long after dark at night the transport men laboured feverishly.

Every horse and mule had to be caught, branded and shod – every donkey and ox branded. Then came orders to shoe ten thousand transport oxen for work in the sandy desert country. Hundreds of transport waggons had to be greased, tens of thousands of pieces of harness buckled together, teams of sixteen mules, twenty-two donkeys or sixteen oxen picked, caught and hauled out of hundreds of frightened kicking, struggling animals.

The role of the horse during WW1 cannot be underestimated. Although advances in technology meant mounted warfare was coming to an end, the cavalry were still used for reconnaissance work and carrying messages. Horses also pulled artillery, wagons and ambulances through the deep mud. By 1917, it was difficult to replace a horse and so some troops were told that the loss of a horse was more of a strategic anxiety than the loss of a soldier.

Mick found the work intensely fascinating. Now he was amongst a wild excited mob of mules selecting likely looking leaders, wheelers or couples for intermediate positions, helping to work the picked animals out of their plunging fellows into a corner – quietening them or getting them jammed until halters could be slipped over their heads –  hauling them away to be shod and branded, then escorting the animals to where a long line of waggons stood ready to have them inspanned.

It was dangerous exciting work with numerous casualties occurring through men being kicked, trodden on or savaged. Half the animals were fresh from the farms the buck wild untrained things that had never known halter or harness. What Mick enjoyed the most was the watering of the horses. Twice daily a strong body of mounted men, Conductors and Basutu rode up to the Remount paddocks. Mick himself being the lightest weight took the most perilous post.

Mounted on the fastest horse to procurable he rode before the gateway of the paddock and turned his horse into the road leading to the Orange River quarter of a mile or so away. The other mounted men meanwhile forming a line either side of the road.

The gates were flung open Mick started forward and three to four hundred horses pouring from the paddock galloped after him, with a score of mounted men riding hard on flanks and in the rear cracking stock whips and shouting.

The road was worn, full of ruts, stones and other pitfalls – behind were hundreds of horses galloping with tossing mains and streaming tails – a slip, a stumble, a fall and Death was certain; but what youth ever realises the meaning of danger.

Singing, yelling, Mick bending jockey fashion used the whip and spur without stint exalting in the wind howling past, the thunder of the great drove behind. The Orange River loomed ahead – driving in spurs, sending the long cruel lash of his short handled stockwhip curling in a vicious stinging back twist under his horse’s belly he lifted the maddened animal to face the running stream.

The horse dashed into the water and almost simultaneously the following drove sent the spray flying as they to galloped furiously into the river. 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.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 59 Disaster at the Front.

End of 58th Entry: Ships officers and Chinese sailors gathered around smoking, listening and joining in the choruses. From the Artillery Transport, from the rolling sailing ships came echoing back the strains as soldiers and sailors took up the well-known songs.

At daybreak next morning the barges were alongside but to the consternation of the Head Conductor, a message came that the only winchmen were employed in discharging the artillery batteries.

Whilst regretting his inability to supply a professional winchman the Transport Officer’s orders were that the Head Conductor was to do the best he could under the circumstances as somehow or other his material and animals had to be landed at once.

A bewildered, unhappy Dutchman interviewed the ship’s Captain but he refused to take the responsibility. None of the Conductors had worked a winch or knew anything of machinery. A few Coloured men admitted to a working acquaintance with winches but confessed their knowledge to be scanty.

A start was made with these men under the voluntary help of the Chinese Bo’sun. As an experiment, a waggon was hauled from one of the holds, hoisted high in the air, swung outboard and lowered into the waiting barge.

There was a considerable amount of swell which caused the steamer to roll heavily whilst it’s effect on the barges was to keep them rising high to the crest of a mighty roller then sinking far into the trough between the passed and incoming surge.

As the ship rolled towards the land the barge would be rising towards the ship – for a brief space of moments, the barge’s hold would be directly under the crane giving an experienced winchman time to skillfully drop his load into the barge.

Any misjudgement meant that the load either dropped into an ever-widening space between the two craft or into a rapidly narrowing one. In the former case, the load would probably strike the sea, in the latter being crushed between the rolling, rising and sinking vessels.

For a while, all went well then the Bo’sun leaving one Chinaman in charge of the forward and one at the after winch, hurried off to his own duties.

The forward winch crew were discharging donkeys slung in pairs and the after winch waggons. Mick going below took charge of hitching waggons to the iron hook of the after crane, another Conductor from the hatchway signalled to the winchman when to hoist, hold, lower or swing across, whilst a third from the ship’s side directed the lowering into the barges. Forrad the same procedure was observed.

The Bo’sun had directed both crane crews without apparent difficulty and with great success. On his departure, all manner of complications began.

The Chinese winchman could not understand the Conductor’s signs, the Conductors were not good at judging time or distance nor at all good at signals.

Unfortunate donkeys hitched to the crane-hook were suddenly yanked into the air in the middle of the roll of the ship. This, nine times out of ten meant them being swung from the hatchway to under the deck and being caught there – a wrong signal would drop them hard into the hold – after two or three attempts, a pair of stunned, bleeding, half dead animals would be triumphantly hoisted high into the air swung outboard, to hang a moment before being dropped into the sea, hauled furiously up, jammed between ship and barge and squashed flat.

The same happened to the waggons. When twenty-nine donkeys had been killed and a dozen waggons reduced to matchwood the Chief Officer stepped in. The Bo’sun was reinstated and immediately the work proceeded rapidly, methodically and successfully.

Well over half the cargo had been discharged when orders came to immediately reload everything. The vessel was to proceed at full steam back to Cape Town.

A most terrible disaster had occurred at the Front.

Colonel Grant dispatched by Colonel Lukin to seize the waterholes of Sandfontein twenty miles beyond the Orange River had been surrounded by a vastly superior force of Germans. After fighting to the last cartridge he badly wounded had surrendered with what was left of the famous Cape Mounted Rifles, two companies of the Rand Light Infantry and a section of the Transvaal Horse Artillery.

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German sergeant shortly before the Battle of Sandfontein.

This news was bad but there was worse to come, Colonel Manie Maritz in command of a large body of Union Defence Force troops had forsworn his allegiance and joined the Germans, handing over to the enemy large supplies of war material. The bulk of his troops, young Dutchman of the Kenhardt and Gordonia Districts had gone into rebellion with him.

A Scandinavian winchman came aboard and under his skilled management the ship was soon loaded, the anchor was weighed immediately and the ship steamed seawards.

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The return voyage was perfect. A strong breeze kept the air keen and invigorating, the sea gave of its best behaviour, everybody white or coloured had gained his sea legs whilst appetites were simply voracious.

A day off Cape Town the smoke of two vessels appeared on the horizon. Whispers spread that one was a warship resulting in much uneasiness as it seemed very possible that the ships might be a German cruiser escorting a prize. Soon fears were set at rest when the Captain identified her build as British and her companion as a Union Castle liner.

The two were overhauling the Queensland rapidly and soon a flutter of signal flags broke from the cruiser’s yardarm. The Queensland replied and news came around the decks that the two were British cruisers escorting a Union Castle liner filled with Portuguese troops.

As the troopship passed the soldiers lining the ship’s sides cheered and waved evidently pleased at any break in the monotony of their long voyage. Mick with all a Rhodesian’s dislike of the race who barred Rhodesia from the ocean sniffed.

“Wish they’d join the Germans,” he remarked. “In 1893…” – and he told of a war discreetly omitted from history books.

On arrival in Cape Town, the donkeys were disembarked, driven to Maitland and Mick with two of his fellow Conductors took over four hundred mules and two hundred horses. These were immediately entrained, a work entailing a vast expenditure of blasphemy and energy, and without delay, the long line of laden trucks were hauled out from the siding. Mick with his companions taking their places in the guard’s van a number of Coloured men being distributed amongst the trucks.

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The new destination was Prieska in the North-West of Cape Colony where forces were being assembled to operate against the Dutch rebels.