From Boatsheds to Battlefields 64 Crossing the Orange River

End of 63rd Entry: The coming of McLeod, a man of gentle birth, classical education and great charm made a great difference to Mick for Mick was becoming a bit weary of his life and companions.

So far the War had hardly come near the Rhodesian. The work and his mates were of much the same type he had always been accustomed to. December had come, three months had passed in the Army without hearing a shot fired in anger – hardly any troops had been seen.

“It’s a damn fraud, Mac,” he said “Nothing but work and not a bit of excitement. I’m sick of whiskey, sick of this crowd of toughs, sick to death of mules.”

MacLeod laughed “The War’s young yet,” he answered “Take it from me Old Man a war’s never what its cracked up to be. So far the infantry regiments have done pure navvy work, laying railway lines, marching, digging – scarcely a shot fired except against the Rebels and there its been like a sham fight – heaps of powder burnt with darn few casualties. It’s a pretty decent war so far, but things are beginning to move now so we ought to hear rifles crack soon.”

Three days of travel brought the Transport Column to Upington where they camped on the South bank of the river opposite the little frontier town. In times of normal flow, the river ran in a broad yellow stream against the Northern bank on which the town was built.

Between the river itself and the true Southern side lay a broad stretch of white sand in dunes, old river beds and flood time watercourses, all of which were fringed with trees and dotted with densely wooded islands.

The road from Prieska led through this expanse to a large island next to which the river flowed. From this ground, a thick wire hawser was spun to a landing stage below the town on which a large pont capable of loading two waggons with their teams, was hauled backwards and forwards.

When the river was sluggish, four or more natives standing on the side of the pont, hauled it across the river by pulling on the hawser to which the pont was secured with ropes working through pulleys – when there was any current the bows of the pont were hauled close into the hawser, the stern slackened off and the current catching the pont at an angle drove it across the stream.

When Mick’s column arrived engineers with huge gangs of natives were busy building across the river, and meanwhile, waggons were crossing both on the pont and being dragged through a shallow ford.

The railway had reached to within two miles of the river and the South Bank Transport depot immediately began to remove stores and material from the great dumps accumulating at the railhead. From here the waggons carted everything either directly to the pont or directly to the river. The congestion was terrible so a military pont was constructed above the old town one.

Before leaving Draghoender the Conductors had been transferred from a civilian status to a military one ranking as senior non-commissioned officers in the South African Service Corps (Transport and Remount Section).

A Captain had been placed in command with Viljoen as his Regimental Sergeant Major. The change in many ways was unpopular, the officers did not win either respect or liking of the men whilst Viljoen seemed to lose interest in the work. What had been a happy-go-lucky family, devoted to the Chief and taking rough or smooth with equal cheerfulness, soon grew into a set of discontented individuals.

On their arrival, all for a few days were greatly excited and happy. The journey from Draghoender had been a welcome change from fitting out convoys while all knew that they were now, at last, getting into the real war zone.

Upington they found alive with troops including one or two crack South African regiments. The two regiments of the Imperial Light Horse were both of these, and the day previous to the arrival of the Transport Column, a brisk skirmish had taken place between them and the rebel Kemp, whom the Imperial Light Horse had intercepted in his flight.


Imperial Light Horse scouts on horseback
(From the First World War diary of P W Hunter,
Imperial Light Horse, by courtesy, DNMMH)

The Imperial Light Horse had suffered several casualties and were furious as they had driven the Rebels into a circle of Boer commandoes. Kemp was in a position which made resistance impossible but through treachery or foolishness on the part of a Commando he was allowed to escape with his whole force and join up with Maritz the renegade.

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

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 62 A Bishop, Confession and Employment

End of 61st Entry: Mick emptied three chambers after him sending the dust spurting around the galloping horse. The Head Conductor leaping forward knocked Mick senseless and the affair was over.

Next afternoon happened to be a slack one – the Conductors were sitting outside the Mess Room, some sipping whiskey, some tea. To their amazement, a real live Bishop of the Anglican Church strolled by looking hot, tired and forlorn.

Viljoen always courteous went over to the prelate and invited him to join his group. The very Reverend gentleman thankfully accepted – it was 110°F/43°C in the shade, unsuitable weather for episcopal garments.

The guest proved a man. It appeared that before taking Orders he had served as a trooper in a Hussar Regiment in the Regular Army. A son of his had recently fallen in France – he himself had spent many years in Zululand.

The Conductors at first shy and awkward began to thaw as the bishop showed a deep understanding and interest in their work, their ideas regarding the war, and their thoughts on the future. Evening fell the Bishop accepted an invitation to dinner, sipped his whiskey and kept everyone anxious to show his best side.

Dinner, a cheerful meal, came to an end.  The Bishop pleaded for an opportunity of hearing the camp orchestra – the same coloured men who had accompanied Mick on the Port Nolloth voyage – the orchestra greatly flattered came and gave of their best.

The setting was perfect – overhead a sky of the desert nights rich with stars, low hanging warm, mysterious – about them the vast, sparsely inhabited, treeless country running into the unknown Kalahari.

Around the fires of dried sheep dung lay or sat the band of wild looking Conductors, the Bishop in the midst. Further away the orchestra squatted, surrounded by a mass of light-hearted, music-loving coloured folk; with here and there the black face and stalwart body of a man of one of the warlike tribes, Xhosa, Zulu, Basuto, Swazi.

Plantation melodies, Irish ballads, Dutch songs – all but forgotten ditties of the Boer War days – hymns beloved by children and Coloured people the world over. Then came God Save The King – a pause – and Viljoen the deep religious strain of the South African Dutch strong within him asked the Bishop to say a few words to offer up a prayer for the souls of a band of sinful men.

A short direct address was given – a man knowing the frontier folk and frontier lives, to frontier men. A brief appeal to the Lord God, The Creator of the World to judge kindly those He had sent into the rough wild places.

The Bishop shook hands all round – Mick who had been very quiet the evening and who had tried to drown a thousand emotions of homesickness, regrets, and memories fell down as he shook hands – enraged he clapped saddle on his horse and with a mate insisted on escorting the Bishop to his quarters.

Early next morning Mick went to Confession.

After a fortnight or so at Prieska orders came for the Transport and Remount Depot to be moved by road to Draghoender, the railhead of the railway line in course of construction to Upington.

In pre-war days, Prieska had been the rail end from which the territories adjoining the Kalahari were served by donkey transport. After the outbreak of war the railway had been continued towards Upington a hundred miles away. A town which served as a centre to a chain of irrigation settlements along the Orange River as well as the great Gordonia district,  a land where sheep farms of a quarter of a million acres were not uncommon.

For the first time since joining the Transport Service, Mick was now employed on the service for which he had been engaged. Each Conductor had charge of ten waggons drawn by mules, donkeys or oxen.

Mick was with the mule column in command of twenty Coloured men, a hundred and sixty mules and ten heavy transport waggons each carrying a load of nine thousand pounds. The roads were knee deep in fine floury dust, the temperature in the sun averaged 160°F/71°C – water was scarce along the road, what there was of it being brackish as to be almost undrinkable whilst grazing was non-existent. A drought had lain for some years on the land whose appearance vividly recalled to Mick his life at Carnarvon.

Most of the travelling was done at night the day being given to resting men and animals, greasing waggons or overhauling harness.

Four days were spent on the road all of which time was one of intense enjoyment to Mick as he galloped up and down his train of waggons, superintended the negotiation of stretches of heavy sand or badly worn patches of road.

Namaqualand_Railway_mule_train

There was plenty to do, seeing that every animal pulled its weight, or was inspanned in the position which build and temperament suited it best, in keeping the waggons well up to one another, in getting through bad places, in having waggons kept greased, their bolts tight, the gear oiled and in order.

Draghoender was reached at last and once more the routine of Prieska was resumed – not for long, however, for a few days after their arrival, a body of troops rode in from the Front. They turned out to be the Natal Light Horse who had spent months chasing rebels amongst the sand dunes of the Orange River.

staticmap

Since taking the field the regiment had been everlastingly on the move far from any stores – their clothing was in rags and taters, few had shaved for weeks and the once spick and span squadrons appeared more like bands of brigands than British soldiers.

CPJ1AY (1)

On arrival, the Natal Light Horse were issued with fresh horses and rode to the railhead to entrain for Cape Town on their way to join the troops operating in Germany West itself. Mick with a few waggons was at the station eagerly chatting to some of the troopers when a spare clean-shaven man accompanied by two Dutchman galloped in.

“That’s Gill the Intelligence man,” remarked one of the troopers turning to gaze at him.