From Boatsheds to Battlefields 76 Poor Delville – it was a nice wood

The manuscript from which I have created these blogs ended with two brothers and three friends finding themselves in the King’s Army and going to Europe. There are pages missing where Delville Wood should be.

Bernard Meredith Leffler wrote of his experience at Delville Wood in an article for the Star Newspaper, Johannesburg, no date is given, possibly for the opening of the South African Memorial in Delville Wood 1926. Here it is.

Delville Wood

Delville Wood

16th Platoon 3rd South African Infantry

We weren’t sorry to move away from the near neighbourhood of Montauban or to say goodbye to Gerry’s old trenches. Seven days of heavy strafing had cost D Company some good men and the 16th Platoon had suffered badly.

One working party trying to connect up with the S.A. Scottish and the K.O.S.B. had got knocked to pieces by a field battery whilst working in the open in broad daylight. Then the Platoon after watching a heavy battery bracketing it’s trench for what seemed hours got the results of the Boche observer’s notes – they were excellent ones for his gunner buried the whole Platoon and caused us the loss of a Sergeant and several others.

Luckily Lieutenant Somerset had “Fragments from France” and most of us fellas possessing a sense of humour found Bruce Bairnfather’s pictures cheered things up a bit.

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Father Hill, of course, bobbed up in the thick of it and started pressing chocolate on us – “Kept away shell shock” he said – we got half buried together and my language brought strongly worded advice that cursing the hell out of the Germans was wasting time which could be better employed.

Out of the shelling zone, one good night, there was mail and hot food a pleasant change.

food ww1 trenches

Next morning a full cavalry brigade came into the valley in which we were lying. A wonderful sight – Panthers, Hussars, Dragoons all mounted on superb horses – a regiment of the Indian Cavalry rode in with the British – all picked men and in the highest spirits, and batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery galloping past cheered us greatly. It looked as though the War was about over – with that crowd going into action.

Dragoons

Dragoons

Just as dinner was about to be served orders came for the South Africans to “Fall In” and we heard that the Highland brigade was breaking through the Germans and we would go over them, carry the final enemy’s position with the bayonet and see the cavalry and Horse Artillery charge into the German Army.

Gordon Highlanders march to/from the front

We moved up immediately to Montauban halting for a while next to a bundle of flesh and rags which had lain there for some time. Carrying on through what looked like the results of a perfectly good earthquake – it had been Montauban – we were ordered into a trench running at right angles to the road we were on.

From here we got a splendid view of the Royal Horse Artillery galloping into action.

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The batteries unlimbered below us and opened on an objective behind a ridge over which we could see the 4th Dragoon Guards galloping. Then the Indians cantered past. Unfortunately, Gerry began to bombard us with teargas shells and further interest in the Cavalry disappeared.

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Chemical warfare – A flier’s view of a German gas attack on the Eastern front.

Slightly before dawn we moved out onto the road and began our march to Longueval – a dead Highlander sprawled in the centre of the road was the first sign that we were getting close to our objective.

After passing Jock the dead began to get numerous, one side of the road being full of them many still kneeling, held up by the bank – a big crowd must have got gassed we thought. They weren’t Kilties

Then came Germans and British mixed – hundreds – a faint cry brought us to a halt and a search party found a British soldier badly wounded and all in, he’d been lying amongst the dead for two days and was mad with thirst.

Shells began to burst around us and we saw Longueval ahead. A mass of smoke and fire through which we could see buildings being blown to pieces – heaps of barbed wire and Highland dead lying in scores tangled up with it.

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Orders came to fix bayonets and charge magazines and a few moments later we were inside Longueval, half of which the Highlanders had captured. They were still heavily engaged – all house to house fighting – shells bursting, machine guns clattering – dead in heaps, singly – lying over window sills, in doorways, the streets – whole bodies, half bodies, heaps of raw meat and everywhere tartan mixed with German grey.

Turning out of the village the 3rd South African Infantry lined a roadway, Thackeray spoke a few kind words.

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Colonel Edward Francis Thackery CMG, DSO

Everybody gripped his rifle hard – the whistles shrilled and away we went “Over the top and Best of Luck.”

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Gerry’s barrage fell on top of us – God knows what happened – nobody stopped except those the barrage got. Most of us beat all records getting a move on and in a few moments we were through the wood digging in along its edge.

Snipers were busy and the 16th Platoon lost a second Sergeant and a few men. Then came Corporal Shafqat with a yarn that a trench in front of the wood only contained seven men and a machine gun – he’d counted them from a tree he’d climbed.

A party of officers and NCOs crept across and began bombing Fritz – but he had more than six pals. 16th Platoon and some of B company charged with bayonet and brought back three officers, a hundred and thirty-five other ranks and a machine gun – what we killed Heaven only knows. Captain Tomlinson got the D.I.O. and Shafqat the D.C.M.

When we got back we found Lance Corporal Biggs and poor old 16th Platoon’s third Sergeant missing. Then we saw Sergeant MacDonald badly wounded trying to crawl back with bullets shooting dust all around him.

Lieutenant Guard, Company Sergeant Major Bryant and someone else went out and carried him in under heavy fire – if anyone deserves the VC each of them did.

Then came the big German counter-attack – wave after wave they came – a mile of open country, one living grey mass. Some idea of how we were firing may be gathered from my own experience – my rifle was perfectly clean and almost brand new.

When the German Infantry waves came in sight I collected and cleaned three rifles taking the bayonets off two. We opened Rapid Fire at six hundred and when the front wave was fifty yards away all three rifles were so hot that, even when using them alternately they kept jamming. Again and again, the attacking waves wavered and halted but always more came over them.

Once they seemed on top of us and I grabbed my bayonetted rifle – then with a yell the  South African Scottish came up at the Double and in a whirl of waving tartans flung themselves amongst us and opened up. Almost instantly the German attack turned and our front was clear, the diverted assault flinging itself against the Natal Regiment.

Then our artillery began to shell the deserted plain – if only they had started ten minutes earlier – still they put up a lot of Boche who seemed to have dropped out of their ranks and lain hidden – we spent an interesting time sniping the runners.

Then the German bombardment started – John Buchan in the South African Forces in France estimates the rate of fire at four hundred shells per minute – poor Delville – it was a really nice wood when we entered it, but Gerry didn’t leave much after we’d been there a couple of days

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For two days and three nights we couldn’t move a yard – the bombardment never seemed to slacken – shells burst in us, over us, around us – men from other platoons, companies, battalions drifted into little corner – many of them bringing batches of prisoners with them – food gave out, water gave out and our nerves got jumpy.

Fortunately, we had a good little crowd and Lieutenant Somerset was as good as a battalion in cheering us. Gordon, the Private Secretary to Malan, Minister of Railways, got a box of Abdulla cigarettes from the body of Somerset’s Batman and we all kept cheery.

WW1. British troops and their smokes on the Western Front. blog.maryevans.com

Then rows began over the disposal of prisoners – there wasn’t room for us all and so the poor Bosch had to go – most fellas would have nothing to do with it, but about four hundred starving men couldn’t keep the same number of prisoners amongst them.

On the third-day news came that a big rum ration had arrived and was with a group of NCOs and men who were further down the wood.

I volunteered to go and crept past 15th Platoon – all were dead bar one and he wouldn’t leave his pals – I had a cigarette with him and pushed on.

Then on a heap of German shell cases, I saw a machine gun team – the cases had caught fire and the Gunners were roasted – beastly sight.

Getting to the party who had the rum there were only four of them, I was advised to have a drink and get out quick with what I could carry as they were being killed fast. I didn’t linger but picked up two rum jars and bolted – a shell dropped killing the four as I got off – creeping back I saw that they were all dead so started off home. Passing the 15th Platoon chap I found him dead. The rum was welcome but didn’t go far – I was asked to fetch more but declined.

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Rum Ration

A German field battery now galloped up into the plain and started on us over open sights. A spent bullet and a heavy bit of shell bouncing off a tree hurt me badly.  Fleetcroft of the machine guns was killed, his brother’s head was blown into a tree fork.

What upset me, even more, was strangely enough after losing my helmet – I picked up a dead man’s and clapped it on my head to find a bullet had gone through shattering the wearer’s skull and now his brains and blood ran down my cheeks. Rain started and we heard we were cut off.

German parties now began to attack us from all sides. No grand assaults such as we’d repulsed on the first day, but companies creeping through the wood and over the plain by day and all through the night. British artillery and mortars began a systematic shelling of us – evidently, our own people had given us up – Lieutenant Somerset went to see whether any opening existed for getting in touch with the British but on leaving the trench was shot through the head.

That night, our last one, was pure undiluted hell.  Four hundred details of the brigade and a couple of hundred German prisoners were huddled together in a crude half blown in trench exposed to a merciless bombardment from all sides – few of us anywhere near possession of all our wits absolutely broken body and mind.

All half mad with hunger, thirst and weariness – a chap with an injured spine died in ghastly agony next to me – we were shot at, bombed and ever shells in thousands came from German and British guns. Our artillery was especially good.

Dawn came at last and with it the final charge – hardly a round or bomb was left, barely a man had the strength to lift a bayonet, few were unwounded, none had tasted food or water for a day and night, and scarcely had we had a full meal for a week.

The Germans attacked in force from all sides – ammunition went – scattered in parties the South Africans fought on determined to go down to the last man. But the remaining Superior Officer shouted, “We Surrender!”

The man next to me blew his brains out with a Lieutenant Somerset’s revolver, some carried on fighting hand to hand and were killed.

Several men got hold of Lieutenant Guard who badly wounded was desperately struggling to carry on.

Those of us able to walk, about two hundred, began the long, long trail to the German prison camps. Pity the Officer surrendered – three hundred men many of them wounded were captured, two thousand and twenty killed and wounded – eight hundred and thirty-three survivors after six days of fighting. South Africa didn’t do badly and I myself only saw one man go to pieces.

They were a good crowd the old South African Infantry.

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The “Last Tree” which is the only surviving hornbeam tree in Delville Wood

Further links from Donald Bernard Leffler:

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 75 Living A Life of Utter Dissipation

End of 74th Entry: 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.

That evening all sorts of rumours began to circulate of a fixed determination of the regiments composing the command not to cross the Border. Darkness fell.

The order came to saddle up and the 18th Mounted Rifles fell in. The bulk of the other regiments refusing to saddle or move. Troopers of D Squadron raging began to quietly slip cartridges into their magazines muttering that they were prepared to attack the others if anyone would lead.

The commands came “Prepared to Mount” “Mount” and like one man D Squadron swung into the saddle. Amongst the other squadrons, the response was varied but the bulk stood sullenly at their horses’ heads.

For an hour D Squadron sat ready to ride, every man itching to open fire on the cowardly dastards around them. Then came the order to dismount and off-saddle.

Next day new regiments rode forward to take part in Van Deventer’s wonderful ride which resulted in the Germans finding their rear threatened, and abandoning their position at Aus. Retiring with all speed the Germans were badly smitten at Gibeon by Colonel MacKenzie with the Natal Light Horse, the Imperial Light Horse, the Umuti Mounted Rifles and the Natal Field Artillery after one of the greatest military marches in the history of warfare.

Captured guns at Gibeon, German South-West Africa, 1915Captured guns at Gibeon, German South-West Africa, 1915

Meanwhile, the 18th Mounted Rifles, the Midland Horse and various other Cape Colony Boer units rode back to Upington to be disbanded.

After a long dreary ride, the troops arrived back in Upington, D Squadron in a bitter evil temper. No delay was made in disbanding the regiment each man received his pay and two months leave pending discharge.

Thoroughly disgusted with the Union Army Mick proceeded home to Cape Town to receive a wonderful welcome the joy of which was sadly marred by the feeling of absolute hatred of anything Dutch. A hatred which would never leave him.

Mick’s mother was half Dutch, many of his friends and relatives belonged to the race but to Mick, the Boer was tainted. Mr Osmond vainly argued pointing out the wonderful loyalty and courage displayed by the bulk of the Boer race – Mick sneered.

“They know which side their bread is buttered, most of them, but damned few know the meaning of the words Truth or Honesty.

For a few days, Mick hunted around for means to go overseas. He tried steamers for work as a fireman, coal trimmer or deckhand; interviewed relatives for a loan, approached the Imperial Army Officers still in Cape Town but every shipping company was flooded with applicants like himself.

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Then one night at the theatre he met an old friend of his Marandellas days then a B.S.A police trooper now Captain and Paymaster of the 1st Rhodesian Regiment. He proposed that Mick transfer to the Rhodesians who would shortly be proceeding overseas as a unit.

Mick welcomed the offer and next day after wiring the 18th Mounted Rifles depot at Kimberly was transferred to the Rhodesians with the rank of Staff Sergeant.

Six weeks passed – weeks that did Mick no good. He travelled to Kimberly to receive his discharge from the 18th Mounted Rifles who were being demobilized – this broke his service as the transfer was for some reason disallowed thus involving a new enlistment in the Rhodesian Regiment.

On his return Mick found himself being everlastingly dragged into bars by a fellow Staff Sergeants and a thousand and one old acquaintances. There was practically no work as the regiment was in German West Africa and with ample leisure, a high rate of pay and numerous friends Mick lived a life of utter dissipation.

Soon wearing Mick applied for and got a transfer into the 2nd Battalion of the Transvaal Scottish gladly relinquishing his rank and pay as a Staff Sergeant to become a private. 

Three days later he left for Luderitzbucht with two Officers of the battalion. A pleasant sea voyage was followed by a long but interesting railway journey and at last, Mick was landed amongst a battalion composed largely of ex-regulars of the Highland Regiments.

Three days went by – the battalion received orders to move down to take part in the Grand Finale of the Campaign. Hemmed in on all sides the Germans were at last at bay. The same night came news of the surrender of the entire German forces.

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Mick returned with the regiment to Johannesburg via Cape Town.

After a triumphal March through the Golden City the regimental pipes skirling in front they proceeded to a demobilisation camp and a few hours later Mick walked out once more free.

Returning to Cape Town Mick found the 1st Rhodesian Regiment arrived and awaiting orders to proceed overseas – interviewing the Commanding Officer regarding reenlistment Mick was told to hold himself in readiness until definite orders had been received.

Unfortunately, a good deal of dissatisfaction existed in the regiment and a day or two later it was disbanded many of the men returning to Rhodesia which was being threatened by a German invasion – others disgusted with Colonial warfare proceeded to Europe to enlist in Imperial units.

For a few days, Mick picked up the threads of his old Sea Point life doing some mountaineering and fishing. With several friends, he discussed every phase of the situation. All were emphatic that they would not serve again in units controlled by the Union Government or engage in Colonial warfare.

Their hearts were set on Europe but funds were lacking and scheme after scheme of going to Australia, England or Canada to enlist were threshed out and dismissed as impracticable.

Then came the news that a brigade of infantry was to be raised immediately for service in Europe. The brigade was to be equipped and paid by the Imperial Government and the troops to be enlisted as units of the Imperial Army. 

The next day Cape Town awoke to find itself placarded with recruiting posters, military bands marching through the town, pipes skirling, processions of veterans of former wars exhorting the fit and young to follow in their footsteps and all the beauty of the Cape calling on men to behave as men.

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Still in the uniform of their Union regiments Mick, his brother and a dozen chums joined the long waiting queues outside the City Hall – waited hours, fought their way into the examining doctors presence and after many hours suspense and struggling found themselves soldiers in the King’s Army.

The first year of the war was over. Mick, his brother and chums were lusty with life bronzed and well experienced in army life. All had smelt powder, were trained soldiers and now with open eyes, and sober minds had definitely chosen their future course.

They had taken a man’s share in the greatest of all wars and it was due to no fault of their’s that little of the actual clash of arms had come their way. Not one had hesitated a moment as to where duty lay. They had played a part in the land of their birth and now eagerly they went to help the land of their fathers, to the battlefields of their race.

Mick, his brothers and three school chums enlisted together. Two bore Swedish names, one Irish, two Dutch. Three were to lie beneath the poppies of Flanders, one to rest in Brighton’s Hero Corner. Mick to return a man hardly worn by suffering, hardship and captivity.

From Youth, the five entered manhood and a life which was Life, Love, and Battle and truest Comradeship – life in the service of the Red Gods.

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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.

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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 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 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 61 War, Whiskey, and Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mick started after him protesting and threatening – turning the hangman sent the lash of his stockwhip hissing through the air, gave a quick turn of the wrist and the cruel hide cut the Rhodesian’s face to the bone – instantly Mick howling with rage and pain drew his revolver. The hangman leaping into the saddle dashed off. Mick emptied three chambers after him sending the dust spurting around the galloping horse. The Head Conductor leaping forward knocked Mick senseless and the affair was over.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 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.