Diary of No 8080 Private JW Milne, 1st Service Company Volunteers, Gordon Highlanders (1900) during the Boer War.
This is the Boer War diary of my grandfather John William Milne. He lived at the Mill of Pott near Cuminestown, then moved to Mill of Millfield, where he worked as a miller and brought up nine children, of which my mother Georgina was one. His wife Ann Hepburn died aged 42. He played an active part in the community, being session clerk and the secretary of the Garmond Games. He also fought in the Great War at the Battle of the Somme and wrote diaries of his experiences there, but unfortunately they are presently lost. He died in 1951 aged 73, when I was 8 months old.
For a more reflective summary of his experiences you may wish to read South African Experience, an article he wrote after his return.
Contributed by his grand-daughter Kathleen Esslemont. (nee Youngson)
The Volunteers were called for on 6th January 1900. By the 17th 2 Coy were formed including half a Coy of the London Scottish.
We were medically examined as follows, the 1st Battalion 13th and 15th, the 4th Battalion-Donside on 16th, and the 2nd Battalion on the 17th. The above mentioned formed the 1st Service Company to which I belong.
We were then billeted out to the keepers of licensed houses in the City of Aberdeen. We were drilled at Wolmanhill Barracks and the Links where we practised shooting, and in about a month we were ready for active service and every man was eager for a taste of real soldiering, for we knew we were no longer a civilian soldier.
Before we left we were entertained by Aberdeen Town Council, Lord Provost Fleming presiding, and Lord Aberdein presented each man with a knife specially adapted for a soldier.
We afterwards assembled at the West Kirk of St Nicholas, where the Rev Dr M Clymont preached the farewell sermon.
Mr Forbes-Leith of Fyvie made a handsome present of an insurance policy for £100 for each Volunteer.
Fri 16th February
We left Aberdeen at two o'clock amid the cheers of the people, a scene which I will never forget, as we marched along Union Street, down Market Street and along Guild Street to the Station, mounted and foot Constables on each side of us. We were being gradually crushed into single file till at last we dropped into the Station one by one and into the carriages, some of us perhaps never to return again.
We arrived at Southampton about 12 noon and got on board the S.S. Guelph on Saturday at 2pm and left at 4pm. We had a very rough passage through the Bay of Biscay. We were nearly all seasick for two or three days. We anchored at Tenerife for coals and water and about an hour after we were in the bay hundreds of small boats were round about us (mostly natives) selling tobacco, oranges, tomatoes etc. We anchored again at St Helena and took in a supply of water and unloaded some of out Cargo.
We were only a week's sailing from Cape Town and arrived there on Wednesday at 3am after a very pleasant voyage. We had to lie in the Bay for two days before we got into the harbour.
We spent most of our time on board the Steamer by reading novels or anything we could lay hands on, playing cards etc. We had a parade nearly every day to see if everybody was clean and tidy, a shower bath about once a week in the morning at 6am, which was sometimes very cold. Once or twice we had marching order parades with all our kits on our back, not to let us forget the way to strap every thing together. Athletic Sports were held and a Tug of War, our Coy coming off victorious in it.
We had a Church Parade every Sunday and immediately after, the fire alarm sounded, and each of us had to rush off to our respective parade Decks to await orders. We then got out rifles and fixed bayonets and were marched off to guard the Boats with orders not to let anybody into them.
There were other Coy on board, all of them English and a few passengers.
It was beautiful to see the hundreds of steamers that lay in the Bay especially at night after they were all lighted up.
We got into harbour on Friday morning and disembarked about 12 noon. We all got a handful of grapes, which they called the Tommy welcome to the Cape. They were supplied by the Rudyard Kipling Poem Fund.
We were then formed up and marched to Greenpoint about 2 miles distant and camped there in tents, on very sandy ground. For my part I would have called it Sandpoint, as all the time we were chewing our dinner the sand was blowing about and we were grinding it amongst our teeth. Our beef was whiles like a piece of leather and it required plenty of chewing to make it go down. The first night we were entertained by the Cape Aberdonians to a Smoking Concert in the Seapoint Hall and spent a very enjoyable evening.
The next night we got down into Cape Town to see the sights of the place. It has a system of Electric Tramways all through the town but nothing else in particular to take notice of.
On Sunday morning we got order to pack up our kits and make ready for going up Country. We left them behind and were told to take with us only one shirt, one pair of trousers, one pair of socks, one pair of canvas slippers, our towel, soap, washing brush and shaving material. All the above mentioned things were rolled up inside our greatcoat and strapped on the back, along with one blanket and one waterproof sheet. We got served out with 100 round of ammunition each. At 9am we left Greenpoint for the Station. We got photographed as we were marching into the Station and after we were in the carriages.
Before we left we got biscuits and grapes handed in the carriages and plenty of Bully Beef and coffee at some of the stations. We could see nothing out at the carriage windows but hill and bare veldt, a town here and there, all along the line. We could get plenty of fruit to buy which was very cheap. We enjoyed out journey very much for we had the good fortune to travel in carriages instead of coal trucks as the most of the troops were put up country in.
We arrived at Naauw Poort on Tuesday at 12 noon, got off the train and pitched our tents. We had a look round to see what like a place it was. There is nothing but big hills all round about and a few houses about the Station. There were plenty of troops here. A lot of them were the sick and the wounded. There is a big base Hospital here I was told. There are about 800 in it. There are about 20 Boer P.O.W. here, big strong men by us. They are kept in a place fenced with corrugated iron and a barbed wire on the top, guarded by soldiers day and night.
Wednesday 21st March
Reveille 5.30am, breakfast at 7.45am, paraded 9am and went out into the veldt practising to do skirmishing in extended order. Attacking a big hill, but of course that was no enemy.
Thursday 22nd March
Reveille at 5am. Paraded at 6.30. Were instructed in piling arms. Breakfast at 7.45, paraded again at 8.30 for skirmishing practice and so on. We began to think we would stay at this place for a while, as no Volunteers were North of it as yet, but we hears tonight that we were going up country further tomorrow, which we were all delighted to hear.
Friday 23rd March
Reveille 5am. Striked our tents, bundled them up and carried them down to the station and put them into wagons. Breakfast at 7.45am. Got on to the train about 11am, got some bully beef and biscuits and started for Norvals Pont, which took us 4 hours. All along the line we could trace the destruction which the Boers had done and for the first time I realised that we would have a chance of a fight with the Boers yet, for we still thought that the fighting would be all done without us getting a chance of firing a shot. We arrived at Norvals Pont in the afternoon and got our tents off the train and pitched just before it came on rain.
Saturday 24th March
Reveille 5am. Paraded at 6am and marched to the Station for fatigue unloading wagons of sleepers and rails etc until 11am without any breakfast, the rest of the Coy carrying stones to make a service bridge for the trains to get up with supplies for the Troop in Bloemfontein. In the centre of the bridge the engineers were working. They put planks across the centre, which the Kaffirs carried, and stones at the sides. The Kaffirs also carried stones all day on their heads. There was also an aerial tramway across the old bridge which was carrying across stores to the other side driven by an electric wire across the river. The bridge had 13 spans, 5 of which had been blown up in the centre. We got a glass of rum that night.
Sunday 25th March
Reveille at 5.30am. Paraded at 5.30am for fatigue to make a road down to the Pontoon Bridge for the mules and troops crossing. Stopped at 8am for breakfast, started again at 9am. Dinner at 1pm. Started at 2pm and stopped at 4.30pm for tea. That was the way we spent our first Sunday as a soldier at the front. We afterwards had a book of the positions the Boers had held, the kopjes were lined with trenches and sangers, which had not been many days evacuated. You would have thought nothing would have shifted them.
Monday 26th March
Reveille at 5am. Station fatigue and carrying luggage from one train and mails from another all day across the Pontoon Bridge.
Tuesday 27th March
Reveille at 5am, breakfast at 6am, fatigue carrying luggage across the bridge all day. Got aroused at 10pm out of our beds and marched down to the bridge to draw wagons across the temporary service bridge and up a stiff hill on the other side nearly all night. We got a glass of rum to cheer us up a bit. The wagons were loaded with biscuits and stores for the troops at Bloemfontein which I knew after in what straits they were in.
Wednesday 27th March
Reveille at 5am. Had nothing to do that day. Went down to the Orange River to bath and wash some clothes for we had now to be our own washwerwoman. The river was very dirty and muddy. We were then told to get our stuff ready for starting on the march tomorrow, as we heard we were going to Bloemfontein, which place we began to fear we would never see, for we have been six days labouring hard at the service bridge. Norvals Pont was a small place with only a few houses round about the Station.
Thursday 29th March
Reveille at 5am. Striked our tents and carried them and extra blankets down to the Station for railing to Bloemfontein. We started our march at 9am. We were the leading Coy and I think we were the first Service Coy of Volunteers to cross the frontier into the enemy country. Colonel Burney of the 1st Gordons was in command, as good an officer as any one could wish for. There were altogether about 1400 of us, all belonging to Highland Regiments, Seaforth and Black Watch Volunteer Coys and D Section Reserves of Gordons, Seaforth, Argyle and Southerns and Black Watch. We reached Donkers Poort about 12 noon, a distance of 7 miles. We carried our greatcoats, all our kit, blankets and waterproof sheet, which I tell you will make you sleep sound enough on the bare open veldt whatever kind of night it is. After we had a rest for a short time we were marched to a stream to fill our water bottles. The whole lot of us soon found out a garden which was full of orange trees. In a few minutes we were bounding over the fences and pulling the oranges, but our Col Sergeant was soon after us, saying that if we did not come back the whole lot of us would be made prisoners for looting, and not a few Officers were after us too, swearing at some of us, for we were getting rare sport playing an old piano in the farm house. However I managed amongst the rest to carry off a few oranges in by helmet and in the top of my kilt, which is another advantage of the kilt. That was about the last case of looting that I saw as orders were read out that anyone found at it would be severely dealt with.
Friday 30th March
Reveille at 5am. Marched off at 6am to Priors, a distance of 17 miles. We lost our way amongst the hills and went a good bit out of our road. We were told that we had done 25 miles carrying everything we owned. A good few of them fell out that day from exhaustion and carrying such a load. I had a few oranges left which was very refreshing on the long march.
Saturday 31st March
Reveille at 5am. Marched off at 6am to Springfontein, the junction of the Port Elizabeth and Cape Colony Railways, a distance of 13 miles. There was a small spring down below the camp with very fine water. It rose like a fountain and was so clear and cool you would have thought the place was named after it. There was also a small village not above half a mile from Camp.
Sunday 1st April
Reveille at 5am. Marched off at 12 noon through the village and alongside the line to Tuilfontein, a distance of 7 miles, and carried one blanket, the rest of our stuff being carried by rail. It was a very bad place for water, only a draw well. I could hardly get in about to it owing to such a lot of troops standing round about to fill their Camp Kettles for coffee in the morning. I think some of them drew water all night for I was orderly man and it was nearly 12 o'clock until I got my one filled.
Monday 2nd April
Reveille at 5am, breakfast at 5.30. Marched off at 6am to Jagersfontein Road Station, a distance of 13 miles. At 8pm we got orders to lie in full dress and our equipment on, so as to be ready at a moment's notice. We heard that there were some Boers in the vicinity, which had broken away from the main body of the Boer Army.
Tuesday 3rd April
We were wakened at 4am and told to fall in as quickly and quietly as possible. We were then marched out of Camp to about a mile and told to lie down and stand to arms at daybreak. We really thought we would have a fight that morning but we never saw a Boer. About 6am we retired to Camp and into our bivouacs and got our breakfast which consisted of a hard biscuit and coffee. 12 men of my section and our Sergeant got warned for out post duty all day, to watch the lines and a bridge. We got relieved at 6pm by the A. and S. Highlanders and retired to camp for the night. We were told to lie with full dress on.
Wednesday 4th April
The Sergeant Major of the Battalion came round at about 3am and wakened me and another chap to go out with an order to the post we were at all day. We went first to the adjutant to get our orders and a letter to the Captain in command of the piquet. We had to tell the Captain in case of an attack to retire alongside the railway line on the opposite side of which ever side the attack came from to the station where the Colonel camped. We were challenged at every fifty yards of so to halt, advance one and give the password. It was very dark at that time. The rest of the Coy were out to about a mile from Camp at 4pm, the same as the morning before. At 12 noon we started to dig trenches for they were fearing an attack. It was rumoured that 1500 Boers were in the district and as we had no artillery to defend us, that night we lay in the trenches with our rifle by our side and our equipment on. We had to stand to arms at daybreak ready for the Boers but none appeared.
Thursday 5th April
Stand to arms at daybreak, breakfast at 7am. I went down to the river to wash, about a mile from Camp. I had to take our rifle and ammunition and keep it beside us all the time. I washed my shirt and socks. At 7pm we were sent out about a mile from Camp on picquets, sentries were posted about 12 yards in front of the Coy and had an hour to do each. There was a big herd of cattle and mules beside us, and we often challenged a mule but there was no response so all went well without any enemy being seen. We marched back to Camp at daybreak.
Friday 6th April
Rested all day. At 5pm the whole Coy went out to a hill about 1miles from Camp for outpost duty again. Nothing occurred of any importance that night so we marched back to Camp. We got orders to pack our kits for beginning on our march again. The last two days we lay here, about 2000 or 3000 horses and mules passed us, General Gatacre, 6 guns, a lot of Troops, 7 Transport Wagons and a Pontoon Bridge. There was a nice village, a spring close by for getting water. Most of the houses were built of brick, corrugated iron roofs, and most of the people are natives.
Saturday 7th April
Started our march for Kruger's Siding, a distance of 9 miles. We got there about 1pm. There was a lot of Indian Stretcher bearers with Ambulance Wagons. They knew who we were when we marched past, I suppose because the Gordons were such a long time in India. We had a good rest in the afternoon and a sound sleep all night, for we had slept for four nights with our equipment on.
Sunday 8th April
Reveille at 5am, breakfast at 5.30am. Started to march at 6am for Edinburg, a distance of 15 miles. This place was the largest and nicest we had been to as yet. The Free Staters soon told some of us that they would never be loyal to the British. I heard of one man who had taken the oath and given up his rifle and ammunition. They had found in his garden buried a Mauser and two boxes of ammunition ready to fight again when required.
Monday 9th April
Reveille at 5am, breakfast at 5.30, marched off at 6am for Bethany, a distance of 12 miles: There was a big Camp, a lot of horses, mules, oxen and transport wagons. I felt a little sick not being right about the stomach, and went to tell the doctor. He gave me two no 9 pills which was said to cure anything that was the matter with you (sore feet etc)
Tuesday 10th April
Reveille at 5am, breakfast at 6am, marched off at 7am to Kaffir River Bridge Station, a distance of 16 miles. I had a bath in the river and felt a good lot better. One of our chaps was very near drowned if another one had not jumped in clothes and all and carried him out. We had our first experience of killing sheep for the Commisarant Stores. We commandeered the hearts and livers for frying which was very sweet and tasty when right cooked.
Wednesday 11th April
Reveille at 5am, marched off at 6.30 to Krall Spruit at a distance of 11 miles. There was terrible dirty and muddy water at this place only a stagnant pool for drinking. It began to get terrible black and stormy looking towards night. About 10 o'clock the rain began to fall and then came the thunder and lightning. The rain poured down in torrents till we were wet to the skin. We had only one blanket and waterproof sheet. Some of us got up while others appeared to be quite comfortable. I was lying in about 2 or 3 inches of water. I began to feel the cold so I got up about 12 o'clock (a rather early reveille) and lighted a fire and sat down beside it with my blanket round my shoulders trying to make the best of the advantages of the Army. This is the worst night we have had as yet.
Thursday 12th April
Reveille 5am. We were up 5 hours age but all the same it sounded. Marched off at 6am to Bloemfontein, a distance of 11 miles. About 10 o'clock we met the Band and Pipers of the Gordons. They had come out about two miles to meet us and play us into Camp to join the Regiment. Our tents were pitched and ready for us to go into; we have had no tents since the 29th March.
Friday 13th April
Reveille at 6am. Good Friday was observed in Camp as a general holiday. It is said that there are between 60000 and 70000 men here, and camps for miles and miles round about. We get plenty of good meat (food); it consists for breakfast coffee or cocoa with loafbread and jam, and whiles cheese or ham. Dinner 1 lb fresh meat and vegetables. Supper, tea and what we have left of our 1 lb bread.
Saturday 14th April
Reveille at 5.30am, paraded at 6.30am in full marching order with kilt on. We were inspected by General Smith Dorrian of the 19th Brigade in the 9th Division. He said a few words of welcome and told us we were the first Volunteers to join his Brigade. At 10am we paraded again and got instructions in manual exercise and were told how to salute an Officer when on Sentry Duty, but it came on rain so we were dismissed and got the rest of the day to ourselves.
Sunday 15th April
Reveille at 5.30am, breakfast at 7.30, paraded at 8am for Divine Service; the whole Battalion of the Gordons paraded and formed up in line of quarter column.
Monday 16th April
Reveille at 6am. It rained nearly the whole day. At 4pm it cleared up a little and we paraded at 4.30 for drill, practising the attack in skirmishing order etc under Captain Cameron. The drill is a bit different from the Volunteers at home. They want us to be as smart as a regular soldier, so that nobody would know that we were Volunteers when on duty.
Tuesday 17th April
Reveille at 4.30am, paraded at 5am for Station fatigue in Bloemfontein carrying boxes of bully beef and biscuits etc off the wagons and stacking them up in the yard until 7.30. We then went back to Camp for breakfast, a distance of 2 miles. At 1pm we went back to the same job until 4 o'clock when we came back to camp and got our tea. It came on an awful night of thunder and lightning, rain followed shortly after, every flash was as clear as you could see everything in the tent.
Wednesday 18th April
Reveille at 5.30am, no parade today for it is always raining, we are quite comfortable in our tents.
Thursday 19th April
Reveille at 5.30am, paraded at 6.30 for Drill. We were instructed in charging magazines etc and were dismissed for breakfast. Paraded again at 10.15 and were instructed in the art of firing and manual exercises. Paraded at 3pm and were photographed along with the Battalion and then dismissed. It has been a very fine day, the rain is all past, a strong sunshine.
Friday 20th April
Reveille at 5.30am. Medical inspection at 6.15 to see if everybody is fit for marching. Paraded at 9am for musketry instruction judging the distance and taking up aim with the aperture sight at a given object on a kopje some 2000 yards away. To do this we had 3 rifles piled with fixed bayonets, a blanket on top and then we set the rifle to the place we weere ordered to. They were then inspected by an Officer to see if they were right.
Bathing parade at 2.15pm. We were told to take our mess tins with us to wash ourselves in. It is a little comical going to bathe in the dish you take your coffee, dinner and tea out of. All the same Tommy Aitkins has got to do it. We never get in amongst the water in the ponds for spoiling it with soap, as the horses have to drink it. Paraded again at 4pm, in full dress with our kilts on for field drill. We were instructed in extending to single rank and from two to six paces apart. I may tell you that a soldier's life is not idleness out here with four parades a day.
Saturday 21st April
Reveille at 5.30am. We got order to pack up all our kits and blankets and greatcoats and put them
on the transport wagons. We were told not to take any extras with us as we were returning in two days. The fall in sounded at 7am and we formed up in quarter column, the roll called and all present. We were in what they called light marching order - one blanket, 150 rounds of ammunition, water bottle full, one day rations in haversack and our rifle. We did not know where we were going, but we were shortly dismissed with orders to be in readiness to march off at any minute. That minute came at 1pm just as we had finished our dinner. We marched off in an easterly direction to a place called Springfield, a distance of 8 miles. We bivouacked there for the night. We were now called M Company and had to take our turn of Duty along with the regulars. We found out that the 19th Brigade consisted of the Royal Canadians, Shropshire Light Infantry, Duke of Cornwall's Own and the Gordons under General Smith Dorrien. The 19th, 21st Brigades and some mounted infantry and cavalry formed the 9th Division under General Ian Hamilton, some 10000 men in all.
Sunday 22nd April
Reveille at 4am, had to go out to a hill as reserve picket for fear of an attack. Got back to camp at 8am, had breakfast, paraded at 10.30, marched off to a camp about 3 miles distant where some troops had been stationed for a while. They had left on the morning, their tents were standing so we got into them for the night. We could hear the big guns going all day away to our right front.
Monday 23rd April
Reveille at 6am. Got a fine night's rest. Paraded at 9am and marched off. At 10.30am we were thrown out in extended order and advanced in that way the whole day. Got into camp about 8pm close to the Boer position and within two miles of the Bloemfontein Waterworks. We had marched about 14 miles. We then got some tea and the whole Company was detailed for outpost duty, our coffee was brought out to us, we came off in the morning, in time to march with the Regiment.
Tuesday 24th April
Marched off 6am for Boer position. Crossed the Modder River near Sanna's Post and close to the waterworks. We could see plenty of spent bullets lying on the ground in all directions and piles of empty cases beside an ant hill or anything which had afforded cover. The Boers could be seen on the hill tops in front of us, but a few shots from our artillery sent them flying off the kopjes, which we camped beside. Two shells came flying over our heads which was our baptism. None of our men were wounded, had a fine night's sleep.
Wednesday 25th April
Reveille at 6am, marched off at 9.30. Ourselves and an other company were put on baggage guard in the rear. The fighting began at 10am and lasted all day. We were on pretty high ground in the rear and could see the shells bursting amongst the Boers all along the tops of the hills. At 4pm we were extended along the left flank of the convoy for fear of a flank attack. When the big guns ceased firing, we were formed up and marched along with convoy to camp, which we reached about 8 o'clock. This place is called Iarael's Poort. After that fight the Boers were said to be trekking north. There were two of the Shropshires wounded, one Canadian killed, four wounded including their Colonel.
Thursday 26th April
Reveille at 3.30am, breakfast at 4, marched off at 5.30am, no Boers to be seen today. We marched through a narrow Nek or pass into the open Veldt. About 10 miles in front of us we could see Thabanchu and marched through it at 10.30. It seemed deserted, only a few Kaffirs. We camped about a mile to the north of the town. About 3pm 30 of us were sent down to the town to guard it from looting. No soldiers were allowed into it to buy food or anything else because the Commissariat wanted all they could get in it. I got a fine drink of milk and a piece of loaf from a Free State lady which was very acceptable. Went back to camp about 9pm and slept sound all night.
Friday 27th April
Reveille at 5.30am, were in no hurry to move, got breakfast without sugar or bread. Got order to roll up our kits and make ready for moving. We could hear shooting at the back of a hill away to the South. At 2pm we marched out to a hill near the camp and lay in extended all afternoon. Our artillery were shelling the Boers as they passed north before General French which joined us as we marched back into camp. We got our tea and went to bed but did not rest long. We got order to pack up our kits and fall in just when some of us were beginning to fall asleep. The officers explained to us that we were going to relieve a party of Kitchener's Horse which was hemmed in. We were told not to strike a match or make a noise. In the event of being fired upon we were to lie flat upon the ground. In about 15 minutes the Battalion fell in and a Company of the Canadians. We marched on the whole night without seeing anything further than some one falling asleep while he was marching and stumbling against an ant hill. We always kept to a track. At dawn we were halted at a kopje and told to lie down. Most of the men were soon sound asleep although it was bitterly cold. We had marched about 21 miles and had seen nothing. Got into camp about 1pm and got dinner. We heard in camp that Kitchener's Horse had arrived in about 2 hours after we left.
Saturday 28th April
Got all afternoon and all night to rest without being disturbed.
Sunday 29th April
Reveille at 6am. Rolled up our kits, got breakfast. There was voluntary Church parade. Nothing was done in camp all day. We could still hear the guns going. About 12 noon 2 shells lighted on camp (from the Boers) about 100 yards from us beside some mules. There were some chaps cooking about the spot where the shell burst. Sunday 29th April
Reveille at 6am. Rolled up our kits, got breakfast. There was voluntary Church parade. Nothing was done in camp all day. We could still hear the guns going. About 12 noon 2 shells lighted on camp (from the Boers) about 100 yards from us beside some mules. There were some chaps cooking about the spot where the shell burst. You could see them flying in all directions with their mess tins in their hands. I was on quarter guard all night, that is the guard which watches you as you sleep.
Monday 30th April
Reveille at 4am, breakfast at 5 - coffee and two day rations of biscuits. Marched off at 5.45am in a westerly direction to try to cut off Boers' retreat north. We had marched about 10 miles, big guns booming all the time. We were despatched to attack the right of the Boers position and advanced in extended order to Thava Hill or Houtnek under a very heavy shell fire where the gallant Capt Towse distinguished himself and won his V.C.
We were rear Company and when we got up to the foot of the hill shells were bursting and bullets flying in all directions, we were ordered to carry up boxes of ammunition for our men on the top of the hill, which was no easy job having to crawl on our bare knees and hands over the rocks. After dark our Company was sent to a kopje on the South which we had to hold until morning. We built sangers for about an hour and lay down to sleep behind them with sentries posted in front of us.
Tuesday 1st May
Firing commenced as soon as daylight appeared and continued till 12 noon. Half a Coy. of the Gordons were cut off and charged through the Boers. After that they broke and fled across the veldt, our artillery shelling them all the time. On the top of the hill while the killed were being buried we could see the crowds of Boers on horseback and wagons flying across the veldt. We buried 5 Boers on the hill but a lot more were killed than that. They (the Boers) had a fine position and thought that they could have kept us back for a good while. We retired off the hill and camped about 2 miles further on. The hills round Thabanchu were now cleared of the Boers. We had fought for 7 days out of 10. The name of the camp is Jacobsrust. We rested here and were joined by Broadwoods Cavalry and Bruce Hamilton's Infantry Brigade.
Wednesday 2nd May
Reveille at 6am. Did not move today. Everything quiet in camp, washed our clothes in a pond nearby. Although it was the day after a big fight it made no difference. Everybody as cheery as though they were on Barry Links at home.
Thursday 3rd April
Reveille at 4am. Marched off at 5.45am in the direction of Wynberg. Heard the big guns booming this morning. We marched about 18 miles and got no opposition. We were on an outpost all night. Marched into Camp in the morning and got breakfast and are waiting orders to march.
Friday 4th May
Marched off at 8am. Was rear guard, a big fight going on in front. We can hear the big guns going, a good many casualties amongst the Boers, a very hard 18 mile march. Reached camp about 6pm, along with the Boers ambulance. The name of the camp is Welhom on the Vet River.
Saturday 5th May
Reveille at 5am, breakfast at 6am, marched off at 6.30am. Reached Wynberg about 2pm, a good looking place with a lot of British women in it. As we marched through the streets a young woman shouted three cheers for the British. Some of them were handing packets of cigarettes to us. We camped about half a mile on the other side of the Town. We were told the Boers were only two hours out of it.
Sunday 6th May
Reveille at 6am, got breakfast at 8am waiting orders to move. Marched off at 4.30pm, reached camp at 9pm, a distance of 8 miles. No Church parade today.
Monday 7th May
Reveille at 5.15am, breakfast 6.15. got orders to march off at 6.45 but it was cancelled. Got a rest today. We got half rations of flour and had to bake it ourselves. We made what they call chaputties and roasted them amongst fat.
Tuesday 8th May
Reveille at 6am. No orders to move yet. Got to rest all day except rifle inspection and the usual camp fatigue. It is very beautiful weather.
Wednesday 9th May
Reveille at 4.45am, breakfast at 5.15, marched off at 6.15. Reached Tand River on the south bank, a distance ;of 12 miles, and camped. The big guns were firing all afternoon at a party of Boers some 4000 strong who were holding a line of kopjes (called Bloemplatts) lying parallel with the river on the north bank. The Springbuck or Deer were flying about in hundreds. They were running through and through the camp. Some of them got captured alive in camp, the Officers were out shooting them. I saw some of the Lancers charging after them with their lance.
Thursday 10th May
Reveille at 4am, breakfast at 4.30. Commenced fighting at daybreak with a salute from the big guns an both sides. We were rear brigade and did not advance till about 8am. When we passed our own guns the Boers were making an excellent replay. We crossed the River an advanced towards the Boers position called Bloemplatts. Meantime a heavy artillery duel was going on, the shell from both sides booming over our heads. They evacuated the position before we got up to them, and retired leaving some guns and a few prisoners in our hands. We got into camp after dark some of us pretty well done up.
Friday 11th May
Reveille at 4am. Went out to support the pickets, came back to camp at daybreak. The name of the camp is Deelfontein. Marched off at 12 noon to Kroonspruit on the Ventersburg Road a distance of 17 miles. Got into camp about 8pm, got tea then had to go out on outpost duty until 6am the next morning.
Saturday 12th May
Got ready to march off at 8am. Marched about 11 miles, halted for three hours and started again and marched other 7 miles to Koonstadt. Got into camp about 6pm thoroughly done up, being on half ration since we left Wynberg.
Sunday 13th May
Reveille at 5.30am. Church parade today. We got the rest of the day to wash our clothes or anything we cared to do.
Monday 14th May
We were told we were getting this day to rest, but we had three paradws so we were little better than on the march. We were inspected by Lord Roberts and his staff. There is a big camp here.
Tuesday 15th May
Rev at 6am, breakfast at 7.30, marched off at 7am to Krannspruit a distance of 7 miles. Camped at 1pm. We whiles try cooking, now making mealie meal porridge and Kaffir meal, we carry a coffee mill along with us and grind the mealies with it.
Wednesday 16th May
Rev at 6am, breakfast at 7. Lying waiting orders to move. Got orders at 2pm, marched off at 2.30pm and reached camp at 8pm, a distance of 12 miles.
Thursday 17th May
Rev at 5.30am, breakfast at 6.30, marched off at 7am. Halted at 11am for two hours, got orders to carry a bundle of sticks on our backs or in our hand as there was no wood at the place we were going to. We reached Reitfontein near Lindley at 6pm a distance of 17 miles.
Friday 18th May
Rev at 6am, breakfast at 7am. We first got orders to march but they were cancelled so we rested all day.
Saturday 19th May
Rev at 6am, breakfast at 7.30, marched off at 9am. Coming back part of the way we had come on Thursday, we then struck away north and marched 8 miles and camped at Magers Spruit. There is a little more vegetation round here, a lot of fields of maize.
Sunday 20th May
Rev at 4.30am, breakfast at 5. Marched off at 6am. Halted at 2pm. We heard the big guns going all day. I went away to fill the water bottles and by the time I got them filled they were moving off again. We reached camp about 5pm after marching 18 miles. We camped on the top of a hill. I was on Batt Guard. I can tell you it has been about the coldest night I have been out in as yet.
Monday 21st May
Rev at 6am, got breakfast and dinner and marched off at 9.30am. Marched about 12 miles and camped. Got dished out with half rations, biscuits and a quarter pound flour.
Tuesday 22nd May
Rev at 5am, breakfast at 5.30, marched at 6.30am and reached Helilron with very little fighting, a very nice place with a large Church, a lot of white people in it. Passed through the town about 12 noon and camped on the other side. We had marched about 12 miles. When we got into camp our company being in advance, we went out on wood fatigue. A pailing was near to us. Every man fixed in a post. There was a great race for the nearest ones, in about five minutes not a post was left standing for abour a mile along the field. Some of the men got passas into the Town but nothing was left to buy in it.
Wednesday 23rd May
Rev at 3am. We went out to strengthen the outposts for fear of an attack. We were put out in extended order and guns placed ready for fighting. About 7am we retired off the hill and started marching without any breakfast. Our Regiment was rear guard. Our Company was gun escort and nearly ran all the way. Marched about 13 miles and camped. Got our flour baked that we got dished out to us the night before. We were then detailed for outpost duty.
Thursday 24th May
Got breakfast of cold chupatties on the hill, then marched into camp to join the Battalion which marched off at 5.45am. The bands in Camp were playing the National Anthem being the Queen's birthday. We reached Vredefort Road about 12 noon a distance of 13 miles, and camped beside the line. Three bridges were blown down close beside each other. There was a big camp here mostly cavalry.
Friday 24th May
Rev at 6am, breakfast at 6.30, marched off at 7.30. Crossed the line, got orders to halt, take off our equipment and sit down and wait for orders. We were now on Roberts' left flank and waited for him to come up. We soon saw his balloon in the distance and thousands of troops, transport wagons etc. Orders came for us to march at 4pm. We marched about 6 miles and halted then other 2 miles and camped for the night. We were now called the Johannesburg Column.
Saturday 26th May
Rev at 6am Orders to march at 7.45am were cancelled. A convoy with biscuits came in so we got issued with biscuits again. Marched off at 8.45, crossed the Vaal river at 3.45pm and camped on the banks. We bathed in the river in the evening which we enjoyed very much for we had not had a bathe since we left Kroonstad.
Sunday 27th May
Rev at 6am, breakfast at 7am, waiting for a convoy to come in. Marched off at 9.15 and camped at Lindigue a distance of 15 miles. No Church Parade today, a fine day for marching. It is beginning to get bitterly cold at night in this part of the country.
Monday 28th May
Rev at 4.30am, breakfast at 5am, marched off at 6.15 for about 10 miles, halted for orders, a big fight going on in front. We could hear our guns blazing away all day. We were lying at the back of a big kopje from which you could see Johannesburg and the mines round about it. We at last got order that we were camping here for the night.
Tuesday 29th May
Rev at 5.45am, breakfast at 6.15, marched off at 7.30am for about 12 miles. For a long time we could see a lot of chimneys in the distance. They looked like a manufacturing town. As we came nearer we began to see that they were the great gold mines on the Rand. About 3pm we found ourselves halted behind a low ridge. The Officers commanding the companies were called out and after a few instructions we were extended to 30 paces and advanced across the open plain. The 21st Brigade was on our left, the Canadians and Cornwalls on our right, the Shropshire was convoy guard and the whole of the fighting fell on us to do that day. The Boers had set fire to the veldt in front of us. We thought we would be burnt alive every minute as we lay amongst the burning grass. After we had crossed the fire the bullets were nearly as thick as hailstones and comrades were falling on every side. There was on cover and the khaki made a splendid target against the blackened veldt. We were now within 500 yards of the Boers. The order was passed along to fix bayonets and charge. We could hear the pipes playing the charge, so everyone that was able rushed forward. On reaching the first fringe of rocks about fifty yards from the enemy I fell fairly exhausted. I crawled up behind some rocks and began firing at the Boers along with some more. They soon began to retire and we charged once more and the position was ours. But it was dearly won. It cost about 100 killed and wounded. It was dark by this time and we camped on the battlefield. We got no tea and we had had little to eat all day. Water was not to be got anywhere. We got great praise from the General, Ian Hamilton. He said we had completely demoralised the enemy and that they would never made any more stands against us.
Wednesday 30th May
Rev at 4am, got no breakfast. We had funeral Service at 10am. We buried 17 of the Gordons. General Smith Dorrien our Brigade Commander gave us great praise in his speech. After we filled in the graves we gave him three cheers We afterwards marched off to a place called Florida about 6 miles distant. We had neither meat nor water. We have had no biscuits for two days. As we marched into Camp about 3pm the whole brigade and the 21st stood up and gave us three cheers.
Thursday 31st May
Rev at 6am. Got a long rest today. We have not got any biscuits yet. We got served out with 1/2 lb of mealie meal each for rations which we made into porridge, on appearance of a convoy yet.
Friday 1st June
Rev at 6am, got no breakfast, lying waiting orders to move. The order came for us to march about 11am. We marched about 6 miles and camped close beside Johannesburg. The convoy came in tonight. We are going to get full rations tomorrow. Some of us were sent into Town on Guard over Ian Hamilton's quarters.
Saturday 2nd June
On Guard. Got full rations of everything today, all them off duty got a pass into Johannesburg from 8am till 1pm, a good looking place, the biggest town we have entered yet.
Sunday 3rd June
Rev at 5am, breakfast at 5.30, marched off at 6am in a northerly direction to try to cut off the Boers' retreat form Pretoria and attack it from the north-west. Marched about 14 miles and camped beside a farm, heard big guns going all day.
Monday 4th June
Rev at 5.30am, marched off at 6. A lot of fighting to our right front today. A heavy artillery fire supposed to be our guns shelling the Pretoria Ports. Got into camp about 3pm, carrying bundles of sticks, halted and made preparations for camping. A galloper came rushing in with some orders for the Colonel. We were soon formed up and on the move again in the direction of a big hill to our left where a few hundred were still hanging about. Firing commenced in a few minutes. The Mausers were screeching and flying in all directions. When we got to the top of the hill whe Boers had fled. We had one of the Company hit on the leg but not serious. We could see Pretoria from our lofty positiona nd heard that it had surrendered which we hoped was true.
Tuesday 5th June
Rev at 5am, breakfast at 5.30. Marched off at 6am as advance guard, a good road, but it is nearly blocked with troops and guns. We are closing in on Pretoria on all sides, big guns still goin to our right, close up to the town by 9am, only marched about 6 miles. We were formed up in review order and were told that Botha was coming out to make arrangements as to the conclusion of the war, but he never came. Now is the time for one to think what the British Army is, when you gaze upon the thousands of men all round about. After waiting for about 3 hours in a bruning sun, we got orders to march upon the town. We camped close beside it, took off our blankets. Half a pound of bully beef was issued out to each man to make us a little more lively for the march past. At 3 o'clock we were formed up and marched into Pretoria. We got orders to fix bayonets as we entered the Town. The whole division was in line of sections of fours, the Gordons in front. (between six and seven thousand men, 8 batt of infantry in all) It was a magnificent scene as we entered the Square of Pretoria. The massed bands of the Guards were playing the Boys of the Old Brigade. Lord Roberts' staff were on horseback in front of the pedestal for old Kruger's statue. On the other side were the civilians kept back by a row of soldiers which kept a passage clear for us to march through. The ladies added a variegation to the scene by their numerous colours of dresses. We still marched on through all the streets and halted at dark and camped in a different place and nearer the town. We have no blankets, coats or kits for the whole lot of stuff was left at our last camp and did not get (to sleep?) until one o'clock in the morning. There was plenty of wood so we kept up good fires to keep ourselves warm. We were now Lord Roberts' bodyguard.
Wednesday 6th June
Rev at 6am, spent a miserable night. After breakfast our boy was sent out to a hill overlooking the Town on outpost. All those left in camp were kept busy cleaning it up a little. It was very rough and stony ground for lying on.
Pretoria, 6th June 1900
The following Brigade Order by Major General Smith Dorrien D.S.O. is published for information.
The 19th Brigade has achieved a record of which any Infantry might be proud of. Since the date it was formed, 12th February 1900, it has marched 620 miles often on half rations seldom on full, it has taken part in the capture of ten towns, fought in ten General actions and on other 27 days. In one period of 30 days it fought 21 of them and marched 32 miles. Casualties between 400 and 500. Defeats nil.
Thursday 7th June
Came off outpost at 8am, got breakfast and started to clean up our own lines, taking out all the big stones and making a row up the side of the camp and whitewashing them. At 1pm got orders to pack up our kits and be ready to march at 2pm. We formed at the hour and marched out of Town to the south by the railway line. We heard that we were going to reinforce the troops at Diamond Hill. However we trekked on until 12 o'clock and saw nothing covering a distance of 20 miles.
Friday 8th June
Rev at 5am, marched off at 6am back in the direction we came last night, until we struck the line not far from Irene. We halted here for about 2 hours waiting orders. We again started to trek and kept by the line and reached Germiston just before the sun went down a distance of 18 miles, where we camped for the night. I was on quarter guard all night. It was bitterly cold. About a quarter of an inch of frost lay on our blankets in the morning.
Saturday 9th June
Rev at 5am, marched off at 6am for Elandsfontein, the Junction of the Pretoria, Johannesburg and Natal Railways. We camped close beside the Station.
My Diary stops here all except some notes of special things that happened. We stopped for about a month at this place and were under orders to pack up and leave at any minute to any place which was attacked up or down the line. Every day was much about the same for duty except when on the line in cattle trucks. We built forts and sangers all round about, mostly on the refuse heaps at the Mines. We had some fine commanding positions at the mines of the country and the line for a good few miles round. We also dug a redoubt, which you could live in and cook your food and be safe from shells in case we were besieged. We had to patrol the line for about 16 miles by day and night to see that no damage was done or any Boers lurking about. Our Coy had a guard to supply every night of 15 men out of 40 duty men which was about the total at that time and quarter guard every other night. After lying here for about a week we got orders one morning to pack up everything for moving. In a short time we were formed up and marched to the Station, got into Cattle trucks about 50 in each and went up country as far as Irene about 10 miles south of Pretoria. We had only one blanket with us, our baggage was left behind, camp kettles and the Cooks, and we got no tea. As it grew dark it got very cold, we kindled fires and lay down round about them. We did not fall asleep until we were fairly exhausted. In the morning each man was issued out with his coffee and sugar and we made it ourselves. About noon we returned to Elandsfontein. When we got about halfways back our engine stuck for want of water. They uncoupled and left us standing on the line and made off for the next station about 10 miles distant. They returned in about 3 hours.
A day or two afterwards found us in the coal trucks again on our way up to Springs (in a coal mining district) to reinforce the Canadians who had left on a night march after a party of Boers. We were put on outpost all night which was bitterly cold. At day break we could hear the big guns going. They got louder as the time went on. We came back to the station and had breakfast and lay all day in reserve but was not wanted. We returned to Elandsfontein in the afternoon. In about a week we again got one of those surprise orders to pack up and get ready at once, but this time to take everything with us. The whole Battalion paraded this time. We marched off to the station about 10am after a little delay in railing the transport wagons and mules. We again started for Irene, where we stayed for two or three days. We left by rail on Tuesday 10th July for Krugersdorp. We landed about 3pm and camped below the station. On the 11th July we marched off at 6am intending to go back to Irene. We had the Shropshire Light Infantry , two 15 pound field guns and a detachment of Imperial Yeomanry, 20 in number, acting as scouts. The Gordons were advance Battalion. Our Company was gun escort and were the first in the firing line. We had not gone above 10 miles when we became aware that we were being watched and that we were already in a trap. We at once got orders to extend to six paces, and at the same time we were greeted by a perfect hail of Mauser bullets and every man threw himself down flat on the bare open veldt without cover of any kind. By this time our guns were in action and had fired two or three shells, but they were too near the mauser bullets. About 3 minutes 15 gunners out of 17 were wounded including their officer who was wounded in three places and still persisted in trying to work his guns. We had got order to rush the nearest kopje, which we did at all we could run, not a man was hit in our advance. We could now see the Boers on a higher ridge about 1000 yards in front of us. We at once commenced firing and kept it up till dark, firing about 150 rounds each. I emptied both my pouches before I stopped and had only 7 left in my magazine. Captain Younger was killed in an attempt to get the guns dragged into cover. Three of the Volunteers were wounded and some of the Regulars. About 8 o'clock some of the Boers crept down on their hands and knees and tried to capture the guns. We got orders to fire bayonets and give them a volley or two, which sent them flying back to seek the cover they had left. We afterwards retired and took the guns along with us. We also got orders from the General to eat our emergency rations which is the first time we have got leave to do so. We marched back by another route to Krugersdorp, for fear of the Boers waylaying us. We had fought and marched for 24 hours covering a distance of about 25 miles. We arrived in Camp and lay down to sleep thoroughly done up. We slept till the sun was shining through our blankets. In the afternoon we buried Captain Younger in the Krugersdorp Cemetry.
On the 12th August Colonial Division passed us at Fredericstadt. Half of the Battalion with us left with a convoy in rear that night about 5pm but turned again at 12 at night and marched back to Wildfontein where we halted for the night. Thence coming back camped at Badfontein 14 miles form Helvetia. On train next day abut 5pm to Krugersdorp. Camped for the night. I was on Battalion guard, very cold night. Next morning entrained for Belfast.
Left Belfast on Monday 3rd September on a left flanking movement at Bullers Column. On our way to Lydenburg came in touch with the enemy in the evening about 6pm when the latter fired some shells into where we camped from a long range gun. Next morning, Tuesday 4th, the Boers fired some shells. Our gunners were unable to locate where the Boer gun was. Our guns were ready for action. We advanced in extended until we reached the nice little village of Dullstroom where the Boers' camp had been. We were reinforced by Brocklehurst's brigade of cavalry. We halted for two hours and got dinner and started marching again and camped. On a hill top not far from a river in the evening some Boer snipers began firing into our camp. Some of us were down bathing. A few mounted men galloped out to ascertain the strength but as usual the Boers fled.
Wednesday 5th September
Very misty morning. Did not start so soon as we intended owing to it. We were on the fight flank all day in extended order amongst the mountains which were very high. We passed a beautiful fall amongst the hill which we admired very much. Our Captain took a snap of it. We heard a fierce fight to our right all day and heavy guns going which was Buller's force. We camped in a nice valley which was rich in vegetation, plenty of rank grass everywhere.
Gordons were rear guard. Our Company were escort to the guns of the rear guard and we were continually harassed by snipers on our left flank until we were despatched up a steep hill which we had to climb on our hands and knees often having to pull ourselves up by tufts of grass. A few Boers were visible. We fired a few volleys at them. They ran in about to a farm and put up the white flag which we took no notice of. We waited on the top of the hill until all the convoy got through a pass. We got into camp about 6pm, after a rather hard day's mountaineering. We were now close to the Buller's force which we were anxious to see owing to the 2 Battalions being with him. Some of the men were across at Buller's camp and some of his were across at us. We heard our advance guard of cavalry were in Lydenburg and us only 8 miles from it.
Friday 7th September.
We marched up to within a mile of Lydenburg when it became known that the Boers were in a large force on a hill commanding the town called the Mawchberg kopjes. We fell back about a mile and waited for Buller's force to come up. The Boers tried a clever ruse to divert our attention to our rear by heligraphing to some hill on our rear. At the same time we thought that it was our mounted troops that had got possession of the hill and was signalling to us that the hill was clear. We were soon deceived however as a shell burst within half a mile of us on the road beside a team of mules of Buller's convoy. So accurate was the aim of the first shell that they had surely measured of the distance. But in a few minutes the shell shrapnel were soon bursting over our heads which was a little uncomfortable as we were at our dinner. The Royal Scots and Royal Irish moved to the rear out of range while we had orders to pack our kits and get ready for going out with the two 4.7 guns to be ready for the attack in the morning. We thought we would have to stop with them all night for we had only our one blanket on out back. We got a severe shelling when we were going out, the shrapnel bursting over our head steady from a range as it was estimated of 7 miles, some pieces of metal falling close beside me but we all escaped unhurt, although some of the Indian stretcher bearers were wounded. Close beside us the Boers were shelling the ambulance quite regardless of our red cross flag floating over it but we were relieved by our sister Battalion. I was down bathing in the river before the shelling commenced and was only new away when a shell burst over the place where I had been bathing killing three of the Royal Irish.
At dawn on Saturday September 8th, shelling recommenced, and continued without intermission all day. The attack on the Boer position had begun. General Buller's men were now on our left, the Royal Irish and Royal Scots in front, the Gordons in support, crowded for the present behind a sharp-topped kopje. Up the yellow hillside roll the lines of men, the shells were singing overhead and falling at random, with the well known earthly thump and sulphurous splutter. The men begin to disappear, and are lost for a time in the deep recesses between the bastion hills, and reappear again half-ways up the mighty Boer ramparts. The supports were now advancing slowly but steadily up the hillside, down a steep wooded slope into a deep ravine and up another kopje.
This is where my grandfather's diary ends, but you may wish to read South African Experience, an article he wrote on his return, for the rest of the story.