From Boatsheds to Battlefields 74 Great Omelette Feast

End of 73rd Entry: Cautiously the fifteen men representing the five sections of the troop crept up the dune – from the summit they looked down on the Police Station standing still and ghostlike in the lunar rays.

An hour passed then slowly the night began to change to day but no signs of movement could be seen in the buildings. The sun rose flooding the desert with waves of red. The stillness of Death reigned.

“I want two volunteers to gallop up to the buildings and draw the Germans if they still there,” said the Lieutenant at last. “Rhodesia will go I know, eh Osmond?” Mick and a young Dutchman volunteered.

“Get your horses and keep well apart” ordered the Lieutenant. “If they’re still there I’m afraid you lads are going to certain death, but it won’t be forgotten. If they’ve evacuated the post they’re sure to have laid mines or set some devilish trap according to their pleasant little customs so be careful. Don’t enter the building or ride right up to them unless you’re certain the station is deserted. Gallop around and give Jerry a chance to show his hand. If you see anything or hear a sound turn and gallop like hell for the scrub or back to the Dunes.”

The Lieutenant shook hands with the two, took down the addresses of their next of kin, and whispered to Mick that Rhodesia would get full details if the worst befell him.

Returning to the horses the two mounted, said brief prayers trotted around the dune and driving in their spurs raced for the buildings.

The ground seemed to fly past beneath their galloping horses, the wind howled in their ears Mick, yelled Tipperary to the silent threatening mass before them. On the dune summit, the troopers laid fingers on triggers.

Round the buildings swept the two but it was all silent. They halted before the doorway – then carefully examining every inch of ground for suspicious signs Mick dismounting walked up and opened the door.

Once more the elusive enemy was gone.

The others now rode up and for a while, every man except two, who were sent scouting around the vicinity, busied themselves in search of loot. Ample evidence existed that the Germans had been at the station the previous day evidently departing in great haste at the news of the approach of a strong British Patrol.

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Many interesting souvenirs were collected Mick unluckily missing most as he and his mate who had been with him in the dash on the station, wasted an hour blowing the office safe open to find it empty.

After an hour’s halt, the Lieutenant once more moved the troop in the direction of a fairly large German town.

That afternoon a big encampment of half-caste Hottentots, the famous Bondelswarts was encountered. These deadly foes of the Germans, well armed and travelling with waggons, flocks of sheep, goats, and herds of splendid cattle had been moving about the Kalahari in bands strong enough to defy any but a powerful body of troops.

Image result for bondelswarts namibia

The Germans with many bitter memories of former clashes had not attempted to molest them and so far the Half-castes had refrained from participating in the War. They were ready and eager to give any information regarding the movements of the Germans and to offer unbounded hospitality to British troops.

From them the Lieutenant gathered that the Germans were drawing in all small bodies of troops, clearing the country of civilians and evacuating frontier posts, concentrating on the town of Keetmanshoop. One interesting item of news given by the Bondelswarts was that a large convoy of civilians including some English was only fifteen miles away under a small German escort.

The Guide who knew several of the Bondelswarts personally found that his wife and family were amongst the refugees and earnestly pleaded for an attempt at their release. A Council of War was held but the Lieutenant though itching to have an opportunity to do something material felt it his duty to point out the impossibility of conveying civilians amongst whom were women and children back to the road the troop had come.

Eventually, after much hesitation, it was decided to abandon any idea of attacking the convoy and to resume the patrol.

Shortly after leaving the Bondelswarts a nest containing twenty ostrich eggs was found and a great feast of omelette followed.

Another day was spent in riding along the border but the farmhouses encountered were deserted and eventually the horses’ heads were turned homewards.

When the camp was reached it was found that troops, mostly Boer Commandoes were pouring in and that an immediate move was to be made.

The rebellion shattered and finished, Generals Botha and Smuts were intending to push forward the campaign against the Germans with all the rapidity and vigour they possessed.

Image result for general botha and smuts german southwest 1915The only photo of the meeting
of General Botha and General Smuts in the field

General Botha himself took command of the Northern Army operating from Walvis Bay. General Smuts directed operations from Swakopmund against the strongly entrenched German position at Aus which blocked the road to Windhoek, the Capital. Colonel Berrangé with picked men rode through the Kalahari to attack from the landward side. General Van Deventer was to advance from the South.

D Squadron hailed Mick’s return with enthusiasm for he was very popular and every man was needed. That very evening the column was advancing to the attack on Ukamas, a German strong point which was supposed to be heavily garrisoned.

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 69 An Army Surrenders

End of 68th Entry: He was sent off to a troop in D Squadron composed of Diamond Diggers, issued with the uniform, a six-millimetre rifle – Portuguese Army pattern, two bandoliers, kit and ammunition and proceeded to join his new comrades.

Within a day or two of Mick’s transfer, the 18th Mounted Rifles rode out to take over the surrender of the Rebel Commandoes and their leader Kemp. The attack on Upington had evidently shown the Rebel General that he possessed none of the qualities of a soldier, that his followers were sick and weary of hardship and of being under arms.

The Germans had shown plainly that they neither trusted the Rebels nor believed them to be of any military value. So Kemp wisely surrendered and Maritz the Renegade fled to Portuguese Territory as the Germans declined to have anything more to do with him.

To Mick, the summit of his earthly career seemed reached. Here, at last, he rode as a trooper in a squadron of hard-faced veterans going to take over the surrender of an army. Every man riding around him was expecting treachery. The misuse of the white flag, pretending to surrender in order to draw the enemy into the open, the use of explosive and dum-dum bullets were all the well-known Rebel tricks and it did seem incredible that an army should surrender simply because it was tired or frightened of war.

“Why the Hell are they surrendering?” Mick asked the trooper riding next to him.

“The trooper laughed – “With all the British Colonials in Africa away in German West the people who reckoned they should have big Government jobs thought it a golden opportunity to start a Republic.

According to the papers the Germans were winning hands down in Europe, Kemp, Maritz, Beyers and the rest of them thought their winning tongues could raise a general rebellion and they were heavily backed by a couple of big political men who are very quiet now but found that Uncle Piet, nephew Johannes and cousin Andries weren’t quite the fools they thought them.

The ragtag and bobtail lot enthusiastically went into rebellion hoping for loot and free farms if successful. None were risking much – the country’s big, their horses were good and everyone had relatives to hide them if necessary.

The solid Boer didn’t want to rebel – he knew that under a Boer Republic Africa would once again revert to South American conditions. Take away the Union Jack and back come Native Wars, Jamieson Raids, a lot of little States all at loggerheads with one another whilst as for the bulk of their leaders, the Boers trust them as far as they can see them and then feel that they’re being diddled.

Boer Republics mean jobs for pals, a corrupt Civil Service, a ceasing of all progress – Hell Kid! The average Boer of standing is a sensible man – he’s quite content to slowly build up a nation under the protection of the old Union Jack, and not go back to Oom Paul’s days. Naturally, he’d like to have the native under his thumb and I agree with him. He knows how to handle the natives and the natives themselves were happier under the old conditions.”

“I like the old Boers” replied Mick “but I can’t stick the young ones they’re as full of wind as a child’s balloon, their manners are awful and they hate us like poison. It’s strange though – give a Boer British training and you get as fine a man has any in the world. Bring him up amongst his own people and you get a Japie. Look at the difference between a Stellenbosch jong and a South African College fellow – the one looks like nephew Andries from God knows where and the other you couldn’t tell from a decent Britisher.”

A command to charge magazines and ride to attention ended the conversation.

The regiment had left Upington shortly before sunset to ride some twenty miles to where the Rebels were encamped. Soon ambulances full of sick and wounded began to pass. These were stopped, searched and allowed to continue on their way towards Upington.

Near midnight the main body was reached and to Mick’s intense disgust the majority of the men in other squadrons began fraternising with the Rebels.

At daylight, the homeward march began – riding with a troop of tough old diggers Mick formed one of the escorts of a body of unwounded prisoners who appeared to be happy as sandboys at being in the hands of British soldiers. Many began to ask about the prospect of joining loyalist regiments whereupon Mick angrily told them that they were being sent off immediately to work underground in the gold and diamond mines.

Gloom thereupon took possession of the captives who began to curse Kemp and their own stupidity in following men who had promised them all manner of things only to prove that they were useless as leaders – most bitterly they damned the Arch Renegade whose silver tongue had seduced many, but who when the acid test came proved to have more wit than courage.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 68 Court Marshalled

The day after the battle of Upington Mick interviewed the Commanding Officers of the 18th Mounted Rifles. The interview was satisfactory and Mick return to the Transport Camp with a letter to the Director of Transport.

To his amazement, he was ordered to appear before various officers acting as a Board of Enquiry if Mick could be charged with having deserted his post in the face of the enemy.

Mick indignantly asked who the accuser was and explained that he had been released from the pont the night before the battle. He also stated that the Officer in charge of the pont had given him an order to proceed to the attacked section of artillery to try and get a chance of taking a combatant part.

As proof of what he had done Mick referred the Board to the Officer commanding the 18th Mounted Rifles with whom he had taken part in the action.

The Major holding the Enquiry then asked how a box of spanners and tools and a Natal Light Horse rifle came into his possession they had been government property and not an issue to him. The box and rifle had been found in Mick’s wagon.

Mick lost his temper. He demanded to know whether he was under arrest he was told not. Mick wished to know whether he was to be placed under arrest. The answer was that he was becoming impudent.

Mick retorted that the whole damn Transport crowd were robbers and thieves and that he intended proceeding to General Van Deventer and accusing various Offices and Conductors of wholesale robbery.

He entered into specific details but was stopped and a little later left the room without a stain on his character, permission to transfer into the 18th Mounted Rifles, to transfer his horse with him and retain his rifle.

In great excitement, Mick back at the Camp told the Officer-in-Charge that he intended reporting various matters to the General and had already done so to the Major. Gaily adding that he had left the Transport Service and had permission to transfer his horse and rifle with him.

He said goodbye to the other Conductors and his Coloured subordinates. Mick rode over to the 18th Mounted Rifles and reported for duty.

He joined a Squadron composed of hard-faced Diamond Diggers, issued with a uniform and six-millimetre rifle, Portuguese army patterned, two bandoliers, kit and ammunition. Mick proceeded to join his new comrades.

Image result for mounted rifles german south west 1914

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.

Image result for upington 1914 south africa

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 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.

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?

PT-Manie_Maritz-Upington-1914

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 64 Crossing the Orange River

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.

Jan_Kemp_and_Manie_Maritz_IMG
General Jan Kemp (1872-1946) and General Manie Maritz (1876-1940)
In this photograph taken in Kalkfontein, today Keetmanshoop, General Jan Kemp (third from the left) and General Manie Maritz (third from the right) pose with German officers.
Unknown photographer: General Jan Kemp (third from the left) and General Manie Maritz (third from the right) meet with German officers at Kalkfontein (today Keetmanshoop), black-and-white photograph, Kalkfontein, n.d.; source: D. J. Langner / A. W. G. Raath (eds.): Die Afrikanerrebellie 1914-1915, Pretoria 2014, p. 266

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.

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.

 

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.