My Early Life | Chapter 33 of 38

Author: Winston S. Churchill | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 3321 Views | Add a Review

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IT was not until the beginning of May that Lord Roberts had replenished his magazines sufficiently to begin his march upon Johannesburg and Pretoria. Meanwhile the whole aspect of the war had degenerated, and no swift conclusion was in sight. The Army Headquarters had lain for two months in Bloemfontein, and great was the bustle before the advance. Lord Roberts at this time had upon his staff in one capacity or another, the Duke of Norfolk, the Duke of Westminster, and the Duke of Marlborough. This had led to sarcastic paragraphs in the Radical newspapers, and the Commander-in-Chief – perhaps by nature unduly sensitive to public opinion – determined to shorten sail. He selected the Duke of Marlborough for retrenchment. My cousin was deeply distressed at the prospect of being left behind in the advance. Luckily, Ian Hamilton found himself with the rank of General entrusted with the command of a detached force of 16,000 men, at least 4,000 of whom were mounted, which was to move parallel to the main body at a distance of forty or fifty miles from its right or eastern flank. I had decided to march with this force, where I should be welcome and at home. I proposed by telegram to Hamilton that he should take Marlborough upon his staff. The General agreed, and Lord Roberts, who never liked to treat anyone unfairly, gave a cordial approval. I inspanned my four-horsed wagon, and we started upon a forty-mile march to overtake the flanking column. We came through the Boer-infested countryside defenceless but safely and caught up our friends on the outskirts of Winburg. Henceforward all was well.

Then began a jolly march, occupying with halts about six weeks and covering in that period between four and five hundred miles. The wonderful air and climate of South Africa, the magnificent scale of its landscape, the life of unceasing movement and of continuous incident, made an impression on my mind which even after a quarter of a century recurs with a sense of freshness and invigoration. Every day we saw new country. Every evening we bivouacked – for there were no tents – by the side of some new stream. We lived on flocks of sheep which we drove with us, and chickens which we hunted round the walls of deserted farms. My wagon had a raised floor of deal boards beneath which reposed two feet of the best tinned provisions and alcoholic stimulants which London could supply. We had every comfort, and all day long I scampered about the moving cavalry screens searching in the carelessness of youth for every scrap of adventure, experience or copy. Nearly every day as daylight broke and our widespread array of horse and foot began to move, the patter of rifle fire in front, on the flank, or more often at the heels of the rearguard provided the exceptional thrills of active service. Sometimes, as at the passage of the Sand River, there were regular actions in which large bodies of troops were seen advancing against kopjes and ridges held by skilful, speedy and ubiquitous mounted Boers. Every few days a score of our men cut off, ambushed, or entrapped, made us conscious of the great fighting qualities of these rifle-armed horsemen of the wilderness who hung upon the movements of the British forces with sleuth-like vigilance and tenacity.

Lord Roberts, against the advice of his Intelligence Officer, believed that the enemy would retreat into the Western rather than the Eastern Transvaal. Accordingly, as we approached the frontiers of the Transvaal, Sir Ian Hamilton’s column was shifted from the right of the main army to the left. We crossed the central line of railway at America Siding and marched to the fords of the Vaal River. In this disposition we were so placed as to turn the western flank of the Johannesburg district and so compel its evacuation by the enemy without requiring the main army to deliver a costly frontal attack. The Boers were alive to the purpose of this manoeuvre, and although ready to evacuate Johannesburg, they sent a strong force to oppose the advance of Hamilton’s column at a point called Florida on the Johannesburg–Potchefstroom route.

Here on June 1, 1900, on the very ground where the Jameson raiders had surrendered four years before, was fought what in those days was considered a sharp action. The Boers, buried amid the jagged outcropping rocks of the ridges, defied bombardment and had to be dislodged by the bayonet. The Gordon Highlanders, with a loss of nearly a hundred killed and wounded, performed this arduous task, while at the same time French’s mounted forces tried rather feebly to turn the enemy’s right flank and rear. I had myself a fortunate escape in this fight. After the ridge had been taken by the Highlanders, General Smith-Dorrien, who commanded one of Sir Ian Hamilton’s brigades, wished to bring his artillery immediately on to the captured position, and as time was short, determined to choose the place himself. Inviting me to follow him, he cantered forward alone across the rolling slopes. The Boers had, according to their usual custom, lighted the dry grass, and long lines of smoke blotted out the landscape in various directions. In these baffling veils we missed the left flank of the Gordon Highlanders on the ridge, and coming through the smoke curtain with its line of flame, found ourselves only a few score yards distant from the enemy. There was an immediate explosion of rifle fire. The air all around us cracked with a whiplash sound of close-range bullets. We tugged our horses’ heads round and plunged back into our smoke curtain. One of the horses was grazed by a bullet, but otherwise we were uninjured.

On the morrow of the action, Sir Ian Hamilton’s column lay across the main road to the west of Johannesburg. Twenty miles away to the south of the city was the point where Lord Roberts’s headquarters should now have arrived. No means of communication existed between the two forces. Johannesburg was still in the hands of the enemy, and to go back southward by the way we had come meant a detour of nearly eighty miles round rough hill ranges. Mounted men were sent forthwith along this circuitous route. A more speedy means of communication with the Commander-in-Chief was at that juncture extremely important. Civilians who came out of the city and entered our lines gave conflicting accounts of the conditions inside. The Boers were clearing out, but they were still there. A young Frenchman who seemed extremely well-informed assured me that it would be quite easy to bicycle through the city in plain clothes. The chances against being stopped and questioned in the closing hours of an evacuation were remote. He offered to lend me a bicycle and guide me himself. I decided to make the attempt. Sir Ian Hamilton gave me his dispatch, and I had also my own telegrams for the Morning Post. We started in the afternoon and bicycled straight down the main road into the city. As we passed our farthest outpost lines I experienced a distinct sensation of adventure. We were soon in the streets of Johannesburg. Darkness was already falling. But numbers of people were about, and at once I saw among them armed and mounted Boers. They were still in possession of the city, and we were inside their lines. According to all the laws of war my situation, if arrested, would have been disagreeable. I was an officer holding a commission in the South African Light Horse, disguised in plain clothes and secretly within the enemy’s lines. No court-martial that ever sat in Europe would have had much difficulty in disposing of such a case. On all these matters I was quite well informed.

We had to walk our bicycles up a long steep street, and while thus engaged we heard behind us the overtaking approach of a slowly trotting horseman. To alter our pace would have been fatal. We continued to plod along, in appearance unconcerned, exchanging a word from time to time as we had agreed in French. In a few moments the horseman was alongside. He reined his horse into a walk and scrutinised us attentively. I looked up at him, and our eyes met. He had his rifle slung on his back, his pistol in his holster, and three bandoliers of cartridges. His horse was heavily loaded with his belongings. We continued thus to progress three abreast for what seemed to me an uncommonly long time, and then our unwelcome companion, touching his horse with a spur, drew again into his trippling trot and left us behind. It was too soon to rejoice. At any moment we might come upon the Boer picket line – if such a line existed – opposite Lord Roberts’s troops; and our intention was to bicycle along the road without the slightest attempt at concealment. However, we found no Boer picket line nor, I regret to say, any British picket line. As the streets of Johannesburg began to melt into the country we met the first British soldiers of Lord Roberts’s forces. They were quite unarmed and strolling forward into the city in search of food, or even drink. We asked where the army was. They indicated that it was close by. We advised them not to go farther into the town or they would be taken prisoners or shot.

‘What’s that, guv’nor?’ said one of them, suddenly becoming interested in this odd possibility.

On being told that we had passed armed Boers only a mile farther back, these warriors desisted from their foray and turned off to examine some small neighbouring houses. My companion and I bicycled along the main road till we found the headquarters of Lord Roberts’s leading division. From here we were directed to the General Headquarters nearly ten miles farther south. It was quite dark when at last we reached them. An aide-de-camp whom I knew came to the door.

‘Where do you spring from?’

‘We have come from Ian Hamilton. I have brought a dispatch for the Commander-in-Chief.’

‘Splendid!’ he said. ‘We have been longing for news.’

He disappeared. My business was with the Press Censor, for whom I had a heavy sheaf of telegrams full of earliest and exclusive information. But before I could find this official the aide-de-camp reappeared.

‘Lord Roberts wants you to come in at once.’

The Commander-in-Chief was at dinner with about a dozen officers of his Headquarters Staff. He jumped up from his chair as I entered, and with a most cordial air advanced towards me holding out his hand.

‘How did you come?’ he asked.

‘We came along the main road through the city, sir.’

‘Through Johannesburg? Our reports are that it is still occupied by the enemy.’

‘There are a few, sir,’ I said, ‘but they are clearing out.’

‘Did you see any of them?’

‘Yes, we saw several, sir.’

His eye twinkled. Lord Roberts had very remarkable eyes, full of light. I remember being struck by this at the moment.

‘Did you see Hamilton’s action yesterday?’ was his next question.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Tell me all about it.’

Then, while being most hospitably entertained, I gave a full account of the doings of General Hamilton’s force to my father’s old friend and now once again my own.

Pretoria capitulated four days later. Enormous spans of oxen had dragged two 9.5-inch howitzers, the cow-guns as they were called, all these hundreds of miles to bombard the forts; but they were never needed after all. Nevertheless my re-entry of the Boer capital was exciting. Early on the morning of the 5th Marlborough and I rode out together and soon reached the head of an infantry column already in the outskirts of the town. There were no military precautions, and we arrived, a large group of officers, at the closed gates of the railway level crossing. Quite slowly there now steamed past before our eyes a long train drawn by two engines and crammed with armed Boers whose rifles bristled from every window. We gazed at each other dumbfounded at three yards’ distance. A single shot would have precipitated a horrible carnage on both sides. Although sorry that the train should escape, it was with unfeigned relief that we saw the last carriage glide slowly past our noses.

Then Marlborough and I cantered into the town. We knew that the officer prisoners had been removed from the State Model Schools, and we asked our way to the new cage where it was hoped they were still confined. We feared they had been carried off—perhaps in the very last train. But as we rounded a corner, there was the prison camp, a long tin building surrounded by a dense wire entanglement. I raised my hat and cheered. The cry was instantly answered from within. What followed resembled the end of an Adelphi melodrama. We were only two, and before us stood the armed Boer guards with their rifles at the ‘ready’. Marlborough, resplendent in the red tabs of the Staff, called on the Commandant to surrender forthwith, adding by a happy thought that he would give a receipt for the rifles. The prisoners rushed out of the house into the yard, some in uniform, some in flannels, hatless or coatless, but all violently excited. The sentries threw down their rifles, the gates were flung open, and while the last of the guard (they numbered 52 in all) stood uncertain what to do, the long-penned-up officers surrounded them and seized their weapons. Someone produced a Union Jack, the Transvaal emblem was torn down, and amidst wild cheers from our captive friends the first British flag was hoisted over Pretoria. Time: 8.47, June 5. Tableau!

I had one more adventure in South Africa. After taking part a fortnight later in the action of Diamond Hill, fought to drive the Boers farther away from Pretoria, I decided to return home. Our operations were at an end. The war had become a guerrilla and promised to be shapeless and indefinite. A general election could not long be delayed. With the consent of the authorities I resumed my full civilian status and took the train for Cape Town.

All went well till we reached the neighbourhood beyond Kopjes Station, about 100 miles south of Johannesburg. In the first light of morning I was breakfasting with Westminster, who was travelling on some commission for Lord Roberts, when suddenly the train stopped with a jerk. We got out on to the line, and at the same moment there arrived almost at our feet a shell from a small Boer gun. It burst with a startling bang, throwing up clods from the embankment. A hundred yards ahead of us a temporary wooden bridge was in flames. The train was enormously long, and crowded with soldiers from a score of regiments, who for one reason or another were being sent south or home. No one was in command. The soldiers began to get out of the carriages in confusion. I saw no officers. Kopjes Station, where there was a fortified camp surmounted by two 5-inch guns, was three miles back. My memories of the armoured train made me extremely sensitive about our line of retreat. I had no wish to repeat the experiences of November 15; I therefore ran along the railway line to the engine, climbed into the cab, and ordered the engine-driver to blow his whistle to make the men re-entrain, and steam back instantly to Kopjes Station. He obeyed. While I was standing on the footplate to make sure the soldiers had got back into the train, I saw, less than a hundred yards away in the dry watercourse under the burning bridge, a cluster of dark figures. These were the last Boers I was to see as enemies. I fitted the wooden stock to the Mauser pistol and fired six or seven times at them. They scattered without firing back. Then the engine started, and we were soon all safely within the entrenchment at Kopjes Station. Here we learned that a fierce action was proceeding at Honing Spruit, a station farther down the line. The train before ours had been held up, and was at that moment being attacked by a considerable Boer force with artillery. The line had been broken in front of our train, no doubt to prevent reinforcements coming to their aid. However, with a loss of 60 or 70 men our friends at Honing Spruit managed to hold out till the next day when help arrived from the south and the Boers retreated. As it would take several days to repair the line, we borrowed horses and marched all night from Kopjes Station with a troop of Australian Lancers, coming through without misadventure. I thought for many years that the 2-inch Creusot shell which had burst so near us on the embankment was the last projectile I should ever see fired in anger. This expectation, however, proved unfounded.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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