From Boatsheds to Battlefields 70 Appetite for Blood

End of 69th Entry: … 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.

As the convoy neared Upington Mick’s Squadron was advanced to form an escort to the Rebel leader. General van Deventer riding out from the town received the formal surrender and returning Kemp his revolver shook hands.

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“Hell Jock!” whispered one Digger “Fancy treating the damned traitor like an honourable foe – wish they’d treat him as any other nation would and put him up against a firing party.”

“Dog doesn’t eat dog” answered the other.

“It isn’t that” said Mick “Boer’s don’t look on Rebels as being traitors – they reckon any man has the right to take up a rifle if he’s fed up with the Government, or his life; and when he’s tired of riding about the country he surrenders and goes back to his farm.”

“I’d send him back to the farm alright” growled another Digger – “but he’d go in a nice little wooden box he would.”

For a few days, Mick lived the ordinary routine life of a trooper of Mounted Infantry. A spell of guard duty over wounded prisoners, outlying picquet, squadron drill, enjoying every moment of the new order of things. Officers, N.C.Os and fellow troopers were an extraordinary good crowd with strangely enough no grievances whatever.

Then came stirring news. A strong German force had appeared outside Kakamas lower down the river and was attacking it.  The 18th Mounted Rifles were to proceed immediately to the relief.

“Now we’ll see some real fighting Thank God,” said Mick’s troop Sergeant, a grizzled old veteran. “No more chasing Rebels and comic opera battles. Pull up your socks boys it’s the German regular troops you’re going to meet.”

“I wonder why they’ve done nothing so far,” remarked Mick “The War’s been on for five months and except for Sandfontein they’ve not shown any inclination for a scrap.”

“Reckon they’ve been as much misled as those poor devils of Kemp’s we brought in. There are men sitting in fat Government jobs, and in Parliament; besides the Rebels who came into the open who’ve promised the Germans a general revolution, the sun, the moon and the stars, and Jerry’s been waiting for their promises to materialize into deeds. Now he knows all their talk was wind so he’s taking over things himself.”

There was no time to be lost if the village was to be saved. The defence was weak, so weak that there did not appear to be any probability of the Garrison putting up any resistance. Riding hard the regiment had made good progress when suddenly their direction was changed – for a while there was keen speculation as to the reasons, then rumours spread that after violently bombarding Kakamas the Germans had abandoned the threatened assault and were in full retreat.

The 18th Mounted Rifles were now riding to try and cut them off before they reached the German border.

Mick’s troop Sergeant cursed heartily, “This is my sixth campaign,” he said “but I’ve never seen, heard or read of another like it – everybody seems dead scared of the other fellow. The whole damned business is like a Chinese War – lots of noise and plenty of stinks. Ever hear of the Barber’s cat Sonny?”

Mick grinned “That’s what I’ve been thinking.” he answered, “Looks as though the war as far as South Africa is concerned is being treated as a glorious opportunity of picnicking and making money.”

“You’re right Son – the Germans have about 4000 troops, the Union about 60 000 the bulk of whom are mounted men who can travel on nothing. A bit of biltong on the saddle and every Burgher could ride for weeks without troubling the commissariat. If German West was held by 4000 British troops and the Union was a Dutch Republic with every Boer’s heart and soul in the conquest of South West Africa the whole business wouldn’t take a week – the British would have been besieged in a couple of the towns.

As it is we’ve thousands of men lying at Swakopmund and Lüderitzbucht, thousands behind us training and more staff officers than the British Army has in France. Had the Rebels been shot down mercilessly, that business wouldn’t have lasted long. I’m surprised at the Germans though – they must surely have the scum of their country in West Africa – either that or there’s an arrangement between them and the Union people to carry on the comic opera war as long as possible.”

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General Botha inspects the South African troops in Lüderitzbucht.
(South African War Museum)

For a couple of days, the regiment rode hard, Mick finding that soldiering was not quite as pleasant as he had thought it.

“Hour after hour in the saddle until every muscle ached – the leg muscles from the riding., the body ones from the weight to the two heavy cartridges filled bandoliers. Then when barely able to sit upright, scarcely able to swing from the saddle to the ground horses had to be fed and watered and cruellest of all, guards and pickets of dead weary men were forced somehow or other to keep alert and awake.

During the day the heat was terrific a merciless sun burning through the felt hat, clothing and skin – water was strictly ration and tepid, brackish and unsatisfying. The roads were a foot deep in floury dust which penetrated anything. Green finely meshed veils and dark goggles had been issued but they made little difference.

The pupils of mens’ eyes floated in pools of blood. Every man was covered with layers of white dust – there was no water to wash or even sponge face and hands. To add to the misery the rations issued were tins of salt bully beef and biscuits as hard as stones. Fuel there was none – not a stick, not even a scrap of dry dung so neither tea nor coffee was to be had.

D Squadron never grumbled – their appetite for blood had been whetted at Upington – they were finished with civil war and now the squadrons were riding towards the territory of a foreign foe.

The line of march brought them on the tracks of the German retreat – too late by a few hours to intercept the enemy. From now came new troubles. The retiring Germans had poisoned some wells and infected others with enteric and other diseases. The men and horses mad with thirst were kept back by a row of glittering bayonets whilst the water was purified.

At last the tracks of the enemy turned Westwood towards Nakop, a German border station. To the surprise of the regiment instead of a direct pursuit, the route of the column continued North. The morning after leaving the German line of march the 18th Mounted Rifles entered a broad valley and instantly came the order to D Squadron to change magazines – the command to trot followed and then as the squadron broke into the open ahead of the remainder of the regiment orders were given to extend – the information passed that ahead was a station and they were to attack immediately.

A trumpet blared, the long thin line quickened from a trot into a canter – again the trumpet sounded and driving in their spurs, crouching low along their horses’ necks the squadron raced madly round corner and straight up the valley towards a few ancient buildings next to a great dam.

Mick riding a long-legged, hard-mouthed brute found he was far in advance of the line  – anxious as he was for the shock of battle he had little wish to charge a regiment of German soldiers single handed. The country he was galloping over was broken, filled with rocks, bushes and holes making it all he could do to cling to the saddle and retain his grip on his loaded rifle. Death seemed certain, either by breaking his neck or by an enemy bullet. Within a few minutes, every chord and note of fear, anxiety and unhappiness had been sounded in his being.

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 39 The Power of a Father’s Name

End of 38th Entry: An answer came the same day accepting and asking him to leave for Grahamstown immediately. Calling on a friend of his father’s, Mick borrowed three pounds to make up the fare and with many an affectionate word bade farewell to the O’Donovans and Muriel.

From Johannesburg to Grahamstown in the Eastern province of the Cape Colony was a long and wearisome journey travelling under the best of conditions. The route involved changing two or three times and waiting long hours at railway junctions and some of the trains were amongst the slowest in the world.

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Travelling Third Class – a Class in Africa patronised almost exclusively by Coloured people – in winter with no funds to buy food and without blankets moreover was something of a purgatory.

However Mick was beginning to become accustomed to hard living and took the journey philosophically. He secured a loaf of stale bread and with that kept body and soul together.

The hard cushionless seats were no worse than the floor of his room on the mine and the scenery kept his interest ever on the alert.

The journey through the great grassed plains of the Orange Free State was monotonous, but once over the border the train ran into the hills and then Mick in spite of hunger and cold forgot his worries in the exquisite pictures ever appearing.

One of the greatest sources of interest was the native in his raw state. Along the line, the boy saw many warlike Amaxhosa draped in their red blankets. Some covered in red clay signifying they had undergone the rites of circumcision and initiation and were now men.

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Two Xhosa men and a boy wrapped in blankets and wearing traditional Xhosa accessories,
stand in an open plain in the Transkei, South Africa.

These men had passed weeks away from women practicing various ceremonies and proving themselves capable of enduring various tests as to their courage, endurance and ability to stand the pain. Now as warriors of the tribe they could marry as soon as the price of a wife, a matter of four or five cows was theirs.

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The women adorned with armlets, bracelets, necklets, and anklets of cunningly woven brass and copper wire or beautiful beadwork, wearing tiny skin petticoats embroidered with beads amused him but Mick with a brain crammed with tales of the Kaffir Wars found his attention concentrating on the men. Savages they were not.

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Tall dignified, with the manners of courtiers and the bearing of well-disciplined warriors the sight of them, thrilled the lad. No Xhosa whether of the Gcaleka or Gaika Tambookie or Pondomise had ever yet been called a coward. Even Dinigiswayo, Chaka, and Dingaan named them as cousins and kept the Zulu regiments away from the territories of the Amaxhosa.

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Grahamstown came at last and Mick slept in the station waiting room. Next morning he called on one of his father’s friends and was cordially received – the lawyer leaving his office to take Mick to his home. Here his wife proved keenly interested in spite of the lad’s appearance for Mick had left Johannesburg in a pair of white drill trousers, a white shirt, and linen collar – three days and nights in the train had turned the boy into a disreputable specimen of humanity as any slum could produce. Mick, although only nineteen was already growing a strong black beard and unshaven for three days, made a horrible sight.

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Questioned regarding his luggage Mick airily explained that it was following. However, in spite of his looks the lawyer’s wife behaved like a mother – some old clothes of her son’s were routed out. Mick was sent off to bath and shave and on emerging found a well-spread table awaiting him.

Michael from his earliest childhood had loved his parents and respected them – ever since the misty days of babyhood his father had been his chum but that throughout South Africa his father’s name should be an open sesame to every legal door whether of office or private home came as a revelation to the lad.

Dad was a good pal and Mother was one of the best and everybody liked dropping in at his home whilst there were always stacks of calling cards left. That seemed natural but he had never regarded his parents as anything out of the ordinary.

Of course, both came from deuced good families but all the money gone – there was a great old-fashioned harp – there were relics of ancient days and all the aunts and relatives looked as though they had come out of pictures and books but much the same applied to dozens of families he had been brought up with.

As a kid he remembered most of them as being still landowners being buried in their own vaults, living stately old-fashioned lives but nowadays that sort of thing was no use to anybody.

Clever moderns who didn’t know where their grandparents came from, had sneaked land, cash and everything from the old world lot and being ancient lineage didn’t bring people flocking around.

Still Dad’s multitudinous activities in the musical and scholastic world he supposed made people grateful. Two school boards got a free secretary, a church a free choirmaster, all sorts of clubs and societies got advice, training and clerical advice free, gratis and for nothing. No wonder Dad was so popular and the Mater‘s cooking and unbounded hospitality were known everywhere.

But that didn’t account for the power of Dad’s name throughout the length and breadth of Africa – Ah Mick many and many a year would pass before true realisation would come that in this modern world a clean gentleman who to the moment of his death never swerved from the code of King Arthur’s knights, who never stooped to touch dirt or turned to glance at it – who himself never shirked danger, poverty, or cared a damn what other people thought, was a man so rare that in sixty years no man met him and forgot him or his wife.

Ah Mick – in the dark days of ’14 when you travelled sixteen hundred miles to “Join Up”, and arrived after midnight at your father’s house there was a light burning in the hall and before you could knock the door was thrown open and yourself and two comrades heard – “Come in Dear Boy and bring your friends, there’s food waiting.” Aye with a Dad like that no wonder Mick’s brother three times discharged, crippled from different units somehow wangled back into the fighting line until covered with the flag of Britain he was borne to the Heroes Corner of Brighton.

But the Dad and the Mater, their other sons and their daughters belong to another tale – perhaps who knows their records may yet be written.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 15 The Boer War

End of 14th Entry: …the Boer War which was still raging and all the world appeared to be flocking into “The Old Tavern of the Seas.”

Glancing at the crew the boy felt a thrill as he sensed how close reality was to fiction. The skipper had a brother who was a rebel – he himself had uncles and cousins fighting on both sides. His father was in the Town Guard, his father’s brother in an irregular mounted regiment of wild young bloods from the four corners of Africa, refugees from the mining fields most of them – his father’s house was an open home for soldiers of England, lavishly entertained though his family was a large one and his people had to battle desperately to keep their heads up on a Civil Servant’s salary and war prices.

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Cape Rebels 

It was jolly exciting he thought, “wonder what Mother thinks with Uncle Will a prisoner-of-war – darn thrilling having had two Uncles with Cronje, and Uncle Toby and those big Australian cousins of his with Roberts, all in the same battle. What would happen if Uncle Toby charged in and met Uncle Will or Uncle Jack? Of course, Uncle Toby would use the bayonet and of course he would win because he was “fighting for England”.

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British Infantry

Those were the days when England’s Might stood like the Rock of Gibraltar and a man spoke not of Britain or the British Empire but of England and England’s Colonies – as the dwellers in the wild far North trembled and feared the King of Beasts so the Nations of the world hated and feared the Island race, Britannia the Pride of the Ocean: Rule Britannia, The Soldiers of the Queen and “they may build their ships my lads” were the songs of the day and the Union Jack waved proudly Mistress of the Seven Seas.

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Rule Britannia

Looking at the skipper Mick wondered if it was really true that he and the stroke oar were the men, who climbing the buttressed tower of Lion’s Head, had hauled down the Union Jack and hoisted the flag of the South African Republic.

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The Red Duster

They had an armed guard on the mountain now and perhaps the skipper would be shot trying to repeat the daring deed. His eye fell on the two young Malay half-breeds who pulled between bow and stroke instantly his mind swung to a tale of Gomes filled with thrills of Rajah Brooke, Sea Dyaks, Land Dyaks and those champion men of the seas the Malay pirates “The Orchid Hunters” darn fine yarn that.

Sir James Brooke Rajah of Sarawak by Sir Francis Grant

Sir James Brooke

Out to sea, a great sailing ship was coming down the wind like some monstrous white bird. “She’ll be English won’t she Jack? Full rigged ship by the look of her – coming from Australia”. The bow oar cast a glance over his shoulder and sent a long yellow stream from his mouth to meet a curling wave.

“You blooming youngsters think you know a mighty lot when you doesn’t know nothing!” he answered. “She’s Yank – and a four-masted baroque – running afore the wind makes her look like a ship – bringing wheat.” “How do you know she’s Yank?” asked the boy crestfallen.

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“She’s carrying skysails ain’t she? British ships don’t carry ’em any longer, not to my knowledge they don’t and I left the sea afore you was having napkins changed I did.”

A cry of “Hold Water” from the skipper broke the thread of the boy’s musings as to how Old Jack would look as the central figure in a scene entitled “walking the plank“.

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 14 The Wanderlust

End of 13th Entry: Together with mountaineering, I took up cycling and on foot of bike searched the long wonderful coastline of the Cape Peninsula. The fairyland of Constantia…..

Mickey Osmond the son of a well known South African family had ample excuse for living in a world of dreams – in his veins ran some of the oldest blood of Ireland mixed with a strain of Holland and a dash of that of Sweden. Of his mixed ancestry, all seemed to have contributed something of the wanderlust and the love of strange company to him.

From earliest childhood, the boy had been reared on stories and in an atmosphere of sailing ships and wars. Africa was still in the making – Britain and Boer were at one another’s throats in the North – The Union of South Africa existed only in a few dreamers minds of Natal and Cape Colony were self-governing Colonies of Britain. The Transvaal and the Orange Free State Independent Republics at war with England.

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Table Bay lay crowded with shipping – a day before the youngster had counted a hundred and sixty vessels, steam and sail lying in the roadstead and out beyond the breakwater. Cape Town was filled with troops from all dependencies of the English Crown. It was indeed a goodly time for a boy to be born and bred – the closing scenes of the Old World.

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Away in the North lay a vast unexplored world where a few pioneers were hacking out the road for civilization – marvelous stories of the findings of ancient cities of a vanished race – gold discoveries which made the recent Klondyke strikes fade into insignificance – of innumerable herds of elephant and great races of savage warriors.

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Only three years before the youngster had witnessed a parade of troops returned from the smashing of the Matabele armies – it was the Queen of England’s birthday and on the square, regiments of soldiers in their red tunics and dark trousers, their white helmets spiked with brass, marched past that great man the Queen’s Governor of the Cape Colony. Squadrons of mounted troops in blue tunics and slouch felt hats wheeled and trotted into their places.

The Battle of Majuba hill - Anglo Boer War in South Africa

The Battle of Majuba Hill
Anglo Boer War in South Africa

Field Artillery rumbled past and as the “Feu de Joie” was fired great masses of smoke split by red flame rolled from the martinis and cannon. Since had been another native rebellion and gruesome stories of officers boiling the head of an executed chief to keep the skull as a regimental trophy – then had come the Boer War which was still raging and all the world appeared to be flocking into “The Old Tavern of the Seas.”

 

And tomorrow the story continues:

“Glancing at the crew the boy felt a thrill as he sensed how close reality was to fiction…”

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 10 In the Service of the Wild

Excerpt from 9th Entry: … bellowing a stream of Danish oaths Jansen with a tremendous twist of the steering oar sent the boat spinning round and as her bow came seawards……

I was ten years old when first I ventured into the open sea and from that morning I date my life begun in the service of the wild.

Well even now more than a score of years after do I remember the scene, a cold leaden day, the sea a vast expanse of white-crested breaking wavelets, the hills and mountains half hidden in swirling mist all – sea, mountain and town cheerless and chilled.

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Our Subcraft possessed a tiny torturous channel through the rocks into the open sea and in a barely sheltered cove stood half a dozen or less rough sheds of wood and iron in which were stored a few boats and a mass of sea gear – ropes, sails, oars, salt, stained clothing, fishing lines and nets – caves of Aladdin to imaginative boys soaked in romance of the sea.

Philipino Fishermen's Huts, Hout Bay c1890

The owners and crews of these craft were ordinary townsmen to their friends but to us dauntless heroes in disguise. Often I laugh now at how we looked upon staid Lawyers and Clerks given to fishing and mild rowing and sailing as worthy fellows of Morgan, Kidd and Teach and how many a night we lay wondering whether they were running cargoes through the wild weather outside.

Devoutly we prayed that our stout policeman was not hidden near the sheds ready to lead forward a rush of sailors from whatever warship lay in the dock. Often I shivered and held my breath with horror as I pictured some particular hero who had let me carry fish or gear, being cut down by a cutlass wielded by some brawny salt and I always prayed that the smugglers would get away and drag with them our unfortunate constable whom I doomed to the plank, the stake and marooning on Robben Island.

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But if the amateur seafaring men were heroes, the crew of our one real fishing boat was of those admitted to the highest circle of the Elect. That they ventured to sea at night, went on to offices, lived in tiny huts on the mountain, craved all weathers, spoke a real jargon of the sea and looked prototypes of our book heroes – ragged bronzed hairy, burly, seafaring men stamped them to our minds as hell marked.

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From these men of the sea I had learned to splice and knot, to distinguish the rig of different craft which passed going in and out of the Bay and much of the life of the forecastle. Only three of the fishermen had been deepwater seamen but they ventured many a year in sailing ships and varied the life of the ocean with all manner of spells ashore. Today I think back but even now my thoughts of two are good thoughts and rough and wild as they brought very little of evil into our minds.

For long I had been a pet amongst them and often I had begged to put to sea and at last, as they ran the boat into the water Jack, the skipper, shouted “Jump in Youngster!” and in a second I had tumbled into the stern sheets and was embarked on a great adventure.

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