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.
“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.”
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.