1 June 1900
My dear Tom
I am left here all alone, the Battery, much to my regret having gone off South to join up with Gen. Hunter before I am fit to go with it. I dont know when I shall get discharged from hospital, not for some time I’m afraid, as in addition to being very weak after a fortnight’s fever I have got complications which are likely to keep me quiet for a bit. It’s a great disappointment being put on the shelf like this. However it looks as if everything was practically over now and in any case I dont think there’ll be any more fighting on this side. We hear today that Hunter has already been into Lichtenburg and found nothing there and our people from here are in Zeerust and Otto’s Hoop where they were received almost with enthusiasm. Most of the Boers who had been besieging this place were so heartily sick of the war that they are glad of an excuse to lay down their arms. They certainly didn’t show any great fighting spirit against us and when towards the end of the fight we got 2 of my guns into a position from which we could really see a good many of them, an unusual thing as they manage to hide themselves in an extraordinary way, 2 or 3 shells sent them flying for all they were worth – I don’t believe we hit many, perhaps none at all, but they jumped on their horses and galloped off as if the devil was behind them and that was all we wanted.
I didn’t have any exciting adventures that day, we hardly heard a bullet whistle all day. The Battery came in for a certain amount of shelling but except for the one shell which hit poor Gray and 3 other men nothing was touched. The Boer gunner, whoever he was, probably a German, shot pretty straight but they were apparently out of any ammunition except common shell and that is quite a useless form of projectile. I wasn’t with the Battery as when we joined forces with Plumer I found myself in the position of C.R.A of the united army and my place was on the staff. Of course one heard a good many bits of shell flying over one’s head, my horse objected to the noise strongly, but I have often heard the same sort of thing when I’ve been on range at practice so it didn’t frighten me much. We had a very long day starting soon after 6 in the morning on a cup of cocoa and a little bit of biscuit and ending up in Mafeking at 4 next morning. At about 8 o’clock at night we had a halt and got something to eat, but we weren’t allowed a fire and I with fever on me didn’t feel inclined for food. The first idea was that we were to stop at this halting place about 5 miles out of Mafeking for the night, but at 11 we were roused and told we were to start at 12 and go straight in. I was dog-tired when we got in and went straight off to sleep but we were (hunted?) up again at daybreak and told to shift our camp and directly after we’d done that we were sent for to shell the Boer laager which they were evacuating in a great hurry. If our cavalry horses hadn’t been so absolutely cooked we should have made a big bag and probably have captured the whole of their wagons. As it was we couldn’t pursue at all but we got a lot of stuff meal etc and several wagons which they hadn’t oxen or mules to take away.
You will have seen in the papers a full description of our 2 fights but perhaps an account from me may interest you. We had no opposition whatever until the 13th Sunday. The night before in our camp at a place called Settaholi (poss ref to Setlagoli River?) we heard that the Boers were occupying a position on the direct road to Mafeking. We knew that there was an awkward place there the road passing through a dry water course and then over a neck between two kopjes and made up our minds beforehand to avoid it taking a road more to the west and of course as our great object was to avoid any delay we were confirmed when we heard of the Boers having laid a trap for us in our determination to go round(?). We started off before daylight and got to a farm about 10 miles off by 10 o’clock. There we watered the horses and had breakfast. I had just started this bout of fever and was feeling very sore so I got some medicine from the ambulance, had a cup of beef tea and lay down under a wagon in the shade all through the halt. By the time we started again at 1 o’clock I was feeling much better. We trekked on steadily meaning to go to a farm on our original road where we knew we could get water. At about 4 o’clock 2 squadrons were ordered from the main body of the advance guard to push on to the farm and secure it.
They trotted on through very thick bush and just as they were passing through the line of the advanced scouts they suddenly encountered a heavy fire from some Boers hidden in the thick bush and it was here we had most of our casualties. At the same time we saw a big cloud of dust coming away from the position the Boers had taken up on the other road some 5 or 6 miles away from us. My Battery was in rear of the advance guard and just in front of the convoy. I was at first ordered to take up a position on the right of the convoy to protect that flank in case the cloud of dust which we saw meant that all that lot of Boers were coming down on us. I went out that way to find a position from which we could see something and took a fine toss on the way, my horse putting his foot into a huge great hole. We were neither of us hurt at all in fact I think it did me good and shook the fever out of me for the time. After a bit I found a place where we got a certain amount of view and got the Battery into action but no Boers turned up and we were soon called up to the front where all the firing was. We trotted up and soon began to hear bullets singing round but neither man nor horse was touched – we soon got into action but couldn’t open fire partly because I couldn’t make out where the Boers were and partly because a lot of our led horses were standing just close in front of the guns. After a deal of shouting we induced these men to get their horses out of the way (bullets were buzzing all round us all the time) and meanwhile I had spotted one Boer riding about among the bushes on a white pony so as soon as our front was clear we began to shoot. The range I started at was only 1500 yards and that was a bit too long so you see they weren’t very far away from us and how more of us weren’t hit is rather a wonder. I believe our first shell sent them off as firing slackened at once but we gave them about 20 and the 2 pompoms on our left let them have about 20 more. We had one man hit by four bullets all flesh wounds not a single horse was touched and one native boy and one mule in the convoy which was quite close behind us were killed. It was quite a hot corner for the 10 minutes or so we were waiting before we could shoot. It was getting on towards sunset by the time the firing stopped and the question was what was to be done. It was much too risky to go to the original farm and none of our guides seemed quite certain of being able to find another one where there was water more to the West.
Eventually it was decided to stop where we were although there was no water for the night and go to the more westerly farm at daylight next morning. It was not at all a pleasant position sitting out in the thick bush and not knowing what had become of the Boers. However we were not disturbed in the night and we started off at daylight next morning to make our next camp on the Molopo River at Jan Massibi where we hoped we might meet Plumer. We found when we arrived at the farm that water for the animals had to be got by digging in the sand of the river bed but that there was a well at the farm where we could get water for ourselves. We had a very long halt there 7 hours it took to get all the animals watered and then the rearguard and patrol had to be got in and allowed a chance of watering. My battery were kept in action all the time as a precaution in case of an attack from the right rear and the horses had to be kept harnessed up. It was a close hot day and they felt it rather, poor beasts.
Eventually we got off at 3 o’clock – the going was heavy sand and most of the first part all up hill. What with the sand and the heat the horses were knocked up badly and 4 had to be left behind hopelessly done up – in fact one of them dropped down dead. After the sun went down things improved but the convoy mules couldn’t keep up so at 9 o’clock we halted till 1. I had had fever again and was feeling frightfully knocked up once or twice after we started again. I thought I should have to go to the ambulance however at one of the halts which were frequent and lasted for half an hour to let the convoy close up I got a nip of brandy and a sleep and woke up feeling much better. After that for the rest of the night I slept at every halt and so got through the march.
Just about daylight we got to the river and soon after our scout reported fires on the other side of the river – somebody said “hurrah – its Plumer’s force” and so it turned out to be – they had just arrived and were settling into their camp. I believe the scouts of the 2 forces came down to the river almost simultaneously. While we were waiting to find out who it was for certain we lit a fire and made some cocoa which bucked us all up – we were in camp alongside Plumer by 8 o’clock and had a good rest and a decent meal which we had not had all the day before, in fact the last one had been breakfast on Sunday. I went over to the Dr again and got from him some stuff which he said I was to take at night and which would give me a good sweat – it did and I woke up in the morning feeling rather cheap and with a thirst which nothing would quench and which lasted me all day. We set off soon after 6, Col Plumer’s force on the right taking the line of the river with 3 squadrons on the other side and our column on the left with the convoy in the middle. About 10 o’clock we got to a place called Sanies where we intended to water and we all closed in towards the river. The country was open rolling sort of downs, but the ridges were all about the same height so that from the top of one we could only see to the top of the next. We got the guns into action on the ridges where we were in case of accidents and sent the horses off to water. They had been gone about quarter of an hour and had half finished as the place turned out to be a very bad one for watering a lot of animals, when suddenly rifle firing began in front. The horses had to be sent for at once, but I suppose it took about half an hour to get them back and get our column into its proper places again. The convoy was all collected in the valley and exactly opposite the opening of the valley to the river on the other side there was a ridge of sand running parallel to the rive. On the ridge the Boers brought a gun into action and began pounding the convoy and at the same time another gun from a farm in front opened fire also on the convoy. They fired several shells which seemed to burst well in the middle of the wagons, but no damage whatever was done. We had 8 guns on the spot belonging to Plumer, 4 of a Canadian battery and 4 belonging to the BSA Police – it was pretty hard to spot where the Boer guns were, but eventually I spotted the flash of the one on the other side of the river and then tried to get the Canadian battery to fire at it but I couldn’t make them understand and when they did open fire I saw the shell burst about a mile away to the left. I got hold of the Major then and showed him again and laid one of his guns on the line to make it quite plain but before he got another round off the order came for a general advance and we went on. I left that part of the field and rejoined the Brigadier – the Boers were reported to be working round both our flanks, but we just strengthened our rear guard and flanks a little and held on. It was just about this time that I met poor Gray being taken to the rear and soon after heard that 3 more of our men had been wounded by the same shell, but that 2 of them were all right and still working their gun.
Courage with his section was having rather a warm time to look at as I passed behind him but he had no casualties. We brought him up however to another position from which we could see the gun which had been annoying him and also a lot of Boers and led horses and as soon as he opened fire on them the fun began, as I have already described in the beginning of this letter. As a Dr who had been with Plumer all through the campaign said “Its quite refreshing after being hunted like Springbuck by the Boers for the last 6 months to see them on the run for once”.
After these Boers had disappeared we got a message from Plumer to say that he could not get over as he was held by a lot of Boers with a gun and a pompom at the farm where their gun fired at the convoy, so Courage went off to lend a hand and was soon after joined by the other two guns which had been away protecting the left rear but as the Boers had given up all hope of doing anything in that quarter and had retired weren’t wanted any longer. The Boer’s gun very soon stopped firing but the pompoms went on until it was dark. However the fighting was all over practically and we proceeded to discuss plans for the night. It was decided that we should go on for a mile or two as the country was quite open there – (there was a certain amount of bush where the Boers had had their firing line) and camp there for the night, going into Mafeking the first thing in the morning. This was altered as I have already told you as a patrol of the I.L.H got in without meeting a soul and sent back word that that side of the town was clear and also some native boys came out with the same story, and so ended the March of the Relief Column. It was a good performance – 240 miles in 12 days.
I believe my battery is now at Lichtenburg and I hope that I shall catch them there. Everything seems to be going so swimmingly with Lord Roberts that perhaps Hunter’s force wont be wanted and may remain in these parts. I hope so as it will be so much easier for me to pick them up. It is rather late to be wishing you many happy returns of your birthday. My last letter from home was the 6th April I think so I am rather out of knowledge of how you all are. Best love to you all.
Ever your affectionate
Herbert with the other wounded in the Sherwood Ranger Ward at Deelfontein Hospital in May 1900. The letter was written from here as he recuperated from his fever.