The Boer War – letters from South Africa sent to The Radleian magazine. No. 4

published on 8th June 1900

LETTER FROM THE FRONT. Kleinospruit Drift, 15 miles N.E. Bloemfontein, April 7th.

“We landed at Cape Town on the 26th of January. The harbour is a fine land-locked one, and as we came in at dawn, Table Mountain, towering up behind the town, was a fine sight. We had not much opportunity of examining the beauties of Cape Town, as we were at once put in the train and dispatched to De Aar. The railway in parts is very skilfully engineered, running, for miles in some places at appalling looking gradients. After you are about twelve hours out of Cape Town, you enter the Great Karroo or Desert, which reaches almost to Modder River. I think the best word to describe it is “triste.” Scrub and sand, sand and scrub, with invarying monotony for miles upon miles, only broken here and there by a small conical kopjie, or a dry water-course. Over all the silence of death. No birds or anything living but insects. About every fifty miles or so a few tin shanties struggle with the veldt for existence, arming themselves with some pretentious name such as “Victoriasville ” for the fray.

The train crawled, but at last we reached De Aar, which is, I should think, the worst place in South Africa. Fortunately we only stopped two hours there, being sent on to Orange River, a few hours further up the line. De Aar will long remain in my memory as a sort of nightmare of sand storms, loose mules, and red-hot language. At Orange River we got out of the train and pitched our camp. Here we stayed a week, getting all things ready for our next move on foot. Our chief amusements were bathing and killing flies. The bathing was jolly, although the river is of a pea-soup-like hue, and very thick. I thought it unpleasant then, but many a time since there have been times when I would have given a sovereign a pint for it. I have learnt to be quite a connoisseur of water since I have been out here, and I must say the Chateau Modder is not a brand I recommend.

After leaving Orange River we marched up by stages to Enslin, where, as you know, Roberts concentrated for his splendid dash across the Free State. We had desultory fighting on the way; first at a place called Waterfall Drift, where the regiment was sent to attempt the rescue of a convoy fallen among the Boers. We had a bit of a skirmish with them, in which I had the bad luck to get upset by the explosion of a shell. In falling I twisted my knee slightly, and had to be taken to the ambulance, which the Boers shelled with impartial vigour. I was taken to Jacobsdal, dressed there, and sent on to Modder River in a springless mule wagon, which gave me fits every time the wheel went over a stone or ant-heap . . .

My knee got well so marvellously quick, that by riding hard night and day in the track of the troops, I got up with the regiment in time for Paardeburg. The regiment did very well here, and I think the Capture of Cronje was a fitting reward for our labours. Roberts’ plan was superb, both in execution and design, and I have no doubt that the salvation of Kimberley was that of Ladysmith also. The men worked magnificently, marching very long distances on quarter rations (about equal to two dog biscuits a day). French’s cavalry rode for twenty-four hours without a rest, and quite surprised the Boers at Kimberley. My Captain got shot through both legs at Paardeburg, but I hear he is nearly well now. The Boer laager was a wonderful sight, piled up with stores, gun rifles (of every kind), clothing, and waggons. The trenches were marvels of engineering skill and I really doubt if the place could have been taken by storm. Looking back on the whole movement I should think it would be hard to find record of a more successful plan carried out on such a large scale. Bloemfontein is a pretty little town (with no pretensions at defence except a tumbledown fort) which straggles peacefully into the veldt beginning and ending nowhere particular. Inside the town the streets are clean, the houses good, and the shops better; English goods at home prices everywhere. I had a long talk with a chemist here who used also to be Postmaster General of the O.F.S. He had been captured at Graspan. He is full of praise of our troops, but his hatred of the Uitlandlers is the sincerest you can imagine. They all think, or have been told by their leaders, that after the war the country will be delivered over to these ruffians, as I do believe many of them really are.

I remember reading a book by a man called Stephen Crane in which he minutely analyses the feeling of a man under fire for the first time. Of course we were under fire at Paardeburg, but nothing like this time. The only feeling I had was one of tremendous excitement, the kind of feeling you get at Rugger when you are working the scrum near your opponents’ line. I had some narrow shaves, one bullet through my sleeve and the heel of my boot taken nearly off. Two poor fellows in my company were shot dead, one on each side of me. I think that is the worst part of the whole show, hearing the poor chaps who are hit groaning close by you. I did up all I could and hope I did some good. The position was taken at last, but with heavy loss. In the regiment we lost two officers killed, three wounded, about twenty N.C.O.s and men killed and sixty wounded. One of our officers had nine bullet holes in him, and he is getting on very well …

The mail of the 16th March has come in, the mail being the great weekly event. You can’t think how one appreciates letters. I keep mine and read them over and over again. You have only to shut your eyes and away go the 7,000 odd miles between you and home. This mail brought me a letter from two old Radleians, M-and B–. In M–‘s was a list of which I am very proud. It is the list of O.R.s at the Front. I doubt if any school of similar size can show so splendid a record.” (Read the list of Radleians here)

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