From Boatsheds to Battlefields 60 Wild, Free and Dangerous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The horse dashed into the water and almost simultaneously the following drove sent the spray flying as they to galloped furiously into the river. Swimming his horse around the mob Mick regained the shore, lit his pipe and chattered with his Mates until the drove was ready to once again gallop back to its camp.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 27 Breaking in a Mule circa 1906

At the end of Entry 26 Mick was learning how to pluck an ostrich: Once plucked, quilled or branded the thong was loosened behind, the bird pulled back out of the pen and the pillowcase hauled off. A dazed look around the ostrich hurried back to his companions and another took his place.

Today Mick Osmond learns more about mules than he expected.

The Van Der Walts did a large amount of mule breeding in addition to their other activities. Now a mule is the product of a donkey stallion mated with a horse mare. The offspring resulting from the mating of ass and horse are not capable of reproducing. The mule is therefore born with a grudge against whoever was responsible for bringing it into this world of sorrow. It knows Nature had no hand in it and from the day it is able to work, it seems that Man was the cause.

Soon realising that it can never enjoy the pleasures of parentage, that only WORK spelled with capital letters is its destiny the mule feels aggrieved. Realisation soon comes that a whiplash stings, but all through life the mule feels a grudge and if given but half the opportunity uses its teeth or heels in trying to wipe out a portion of the compound interest on its debt to man.

So breaking in mules, especially the wonderful type bred in the Western Province of the Cape of Good Hope, is not a suitable pastime for any but rough hairy men possessed of iron muscles and powerful frames. Mick’s ambition was to take his full share – he had reveled again and again in Henty’s “Redskin and Cowboy, “In the Heart of the Rockies” and a score of such like books and with his sea and mountain training didn’t see why he shouldn’t fall naturally into the work.

Unfortunately for the youth, Mathew Van Der Walt considered Mr. Osmond a very important person and Mick, as the eldest son of his father, to be of some value to the world. So after Mick had been kicked senseless, trodden on, savaged and been a dozen times only saved from an untimely death by the almost miraculous interposing of Providence Mathew ruled that Mick was too young and too light to be allowed to join in catching, holding, harnessing of mules and young horses.

However, there were many compensations. The method used by the Van Der Walts in breaking in mules and horses were extremely simple. A score of animals was driven into a stone walled yard, where with much cursing and yelling, the mob of plunging kicking brutes were closely packed into a corner. Here with wonderful skill and at imminent risk halters were got on a dozen heads and the rearing frightened animals secured to older more experienced brethren.

Somehow or other the linked animals were hauled out of the crush and harness got on them. With half a dozen laughing, jeering Cape Coloureds hanging on to the rawhide halter thong the mules were dragged to a wagon and in-spanned. Each wagon was drawn by a team of sixteen, usually two horses as leaders and fourteen mules behind them.

With a team of perhaps two old wheelers, two fast well-trained leaders, probably eight half or partially broken in mules, and four wild broncos, a drive was as thrilling as any made by Buffalo Bill’s famous Deadwood coach.

Usually, Peter handled the long-handled bamboo whip whose lash could reach all the length of the team, Mick soon trusted would hold the four reins – the two from the wheelers and the long one from the near leader gathered in his left hand, the one from the off leader in his right.

The last struggling fighting mule in-spanned Peter would send the lash swishing through the air a dozen men hanging like madmen to the heads of half a dozen rearing mules would let go and the heavy wagon would go flying down the road with all the noise and dust of a battery of Royal Horse Artillery going into action.

The pace at first would be tremendous but the grades were steep, the wagon solid and heavy, the mules fat from soft living in the lucerne fields –  soon the novices weary of the frantic gallop especially as their more experienced mates strove to hinder them – the pace would slacken – but an unkind lash stung rapidly and hardly. Away the youngsters tore dragging their load and companions but soft muscles soon tired the whip spared not until four saddened humbled mules began to realise that discretion was less painful than valour.

A load of three tons besides the weight of wagon and harness, a stinging whip-lash and six hours of hauling would bring much chastened, already half trained young mules home too tired to object to being led to a stable and fastened up. A few days and the youngsters were taking their part in helping to train the others.

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The horses were Mick’s greatest joy – Luba and Wanda two purebred three-year-old Hackneys were his chief affection and Mick joined poor old Hans MacKenzie, the black groom in a fit of weeping when Mathew sold the pair for £100 cash. Golddust another mare – half Irish thoroughbred, half Hackney purebred was another favourite and great was Mick’s indignation when the dainty alluring mare was in-spanned into a team before a heavy plough – Golddust had won a dozen races some against well-known track horses and Mathew was damned forever in Mick’s estimation when the indignity was forced on his idol.

Tomorrow:“But of all the horses, Mick hated Nikola.”

If anyone reading this knows where Struan early 1900s is please email me: patleffler7@gmail.com