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Reminiscences of the 28th

by C.J. Hickie (Lieutenant, 28th during Boer War)
(Back Badge, 1950)

I joined the 28th at Pembroke Camp, Malta, soon afterwards Bob Rawson, from Carlow, arrived on the scene, giving "G" Company 2 Irish subalterns. Colonel Brodigan, from Meath, who had some years previously finished command, spent that winter (1893-94) in Malta. He used to walk from Valetta dailt to lunch and was, of course, present at our Bi-Centenary Ball at the Union Club.

We had a splendid bandmaster, Mr. Marks, who had brought the Band a high degree of efficiency. Having come into the Mess-room according to custom, he was seated next the president, taking his glass of wine. A guest said to 'Sonnie' Duncan: "I see your Bandmaster was in the Kabul-Kandahar march." "Oh yes," said Sonnie, "and he was out of step all the way."

At that time only 2 of our officers had seen active service - R.M. Davy and Willcock. "Warlike" William was ever ready for more. In his room, beneath his table, was a uniform case with "WAR" painted on it. In the South African War, during the action at Tchrengula, known as Nicholson's Nek, I was the only officer in camp. Late in the afternoon Sergeant-Major Gray reported that one of our men had come in from the battle and, perhaps, I would like to see him. Neither I nor the SM had been able to go out with the Battalion. I questioned the man about casualties and he told me that 3 officers had been wounded. He mentioned Fyffe and Stayner but failed to find a name for the third. He finally said, "Mr Beech." I tried him with Breul and Bryant, but to no effect. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, not knowing your officer's name," said the SM. An hour or so later the SM came along with a smile on his face. "It was Captain Willcock; they call him 'Old Breech-Block'."

Well do I remember the sword exercises. It takes my mind to Capel-Cure's £25 sword. When choosing this he agreed to pay for any blades which failed to stand the test he imposed and several did not. That sword went at Tchrengula, as did 2 automatics which he carried in the breast pockets of his khaki jacket, these pockets being specially shaped to take them.

After the action at Rietfontein on 24th October 1899, I was only able to limp back to the assembly point with my half-company, and the poor Colonel having been killed, got permission to ride his charger 8 miles back to Ladymsith. When I reached camp and dismounted, to my dismay, I saw that his sword was missing from the scabbard, which we strapped horizontally to the back of the saddle. Presumably it had shaken out on the way. I was very much upset, especially when a search was unsuccessful.

The shelling of Ladysmith was on a comparitvely small scale and Bulwana "Long Tom" a 6-inch creusot, was the only Boer gun that paid our camp at Railway Cutting any attention. After a disastrous shell from this gun, wich caused 17 casualties (22nd December), our quarter guard sentry was supplied with a whistle. He kept constant watch on Long Tom Sangar. Immediately he saw the flash of discharge and the smoke, he blew the warning, when all took cover. After the burst an officer ran to the telescope at the guard sangar, where he took charge and the whistle was not blown again unless the gun was trained on our area. This was easily determined when it reappeared from its recoil position.

I now quote from my diary: "January 22nd 1900. It was about 9 am and a lot of men were putting their kits ready for inspection in front of No. 1 Company's sangar, when the whistle went (our sentry had spotted the brutal gun). The men doubled under cover and 'bang' came 'Long Tom', right in among the kits, sending water-bottles, pouches, ammunition and all sorts of things flying. Blankets and water-proof sheets were torn to pieces and cast about the camp, but no one of the rifles, leaning against the sangar, was touched, though the explosion took place within 10 ft of the sangar. That whistle saved a good many. The sentry was Private Dutton."

One of our hardships during the siege was shortage of officers. We had 5 of our own and 1 attached, whilst other ranks numbered 450. Picquets and working parties were found on the basis of OR's. The climax was reached towards the end of January when only 3 of us were on duty. Venables, our CO, joined the others on the sick list. The other 2 had been on picquet for 11 days. This resulted in our moving to Cemetery Hill, where we acted as reserve to the Devonshire Post, this was under the command of Colonel "Johnnie" Campbell of the 69th.

I often think of the good comrades who rest in and around Ladysmith. Colonel Wilford's body was brought in from Rietfontein and buried in the cemetery. During the action he had come right to the firing line and was shot through the head. I think Orderly-Room-Sergeant D. Dennard also rests in the cemetery, whereas Sergt-Major B. Gray and Colour-Sergt. C. Pittaway are buried at Intombi, where the main hospital was. I visited all these graves and memorials in 1908, also the regimental tablet in the church and the graves and memorial on Tchrengula. I have photographs of many of these. I also went out to see the garves at Rietfontein, where many of my company were buried - Privates Penny, Offer, Miles and Thomas. We had 15 wounded, in addition, in "G" Company, the total casualties in the Battalion being 11 killed and 51 wounded.

Round and about our Mess shelter wandered a solitary chicken, which supplied the Mess with a couple of eggs a day. We called it "Buller's chicken."

I quote from my diary (the relief had come on 28th February): "Thursday, 1st March 1900. Tonight we burst out in champagne all round; killed the fatted calf, ie Buller's chicken, opened the long-stored saveloy and had a real fine dinner. We drank everyone's health and passed our long-stored bottle of brandy round."

Whether this feast was wise, in view of our debilitated condition, is doubtful. Within a few days Bob Rawlinson and I were living on board the hospital ship Orcana at Durban. The writer lost 2 stone in weight but stood up throughout. Probably the one least affected was "Tibbles" Theobald and he got a DSO and extra regimental promotion. Venables too got a well-earned DSO. The 3 others were recommended for promotion. Maxwell-Scott rejoined his Regiment - the Cameronians. Later in his career he became a Major-General.

Towards the end of March the Battalion moved down to Durban, where we went into camp on the racecourse, but a very kind resident, Mr. Butcher, having placed at our disposal a couple of fields on the Berea, we moved up there and spent a very happy few weeks there. We remained on L. of C. until, in the autumn of 1900, we left Vanreenan's Pass for Ceylon. Prinsloo's surrender had brought into the bag some 3000 prisoners. These we took over in Durban. Three troopships were provided, each taking roughly a third of the Battalion and a third of the Boers. I remember so well seeing them dipping their fingers in the water and then tasting it (as they went off to our ship in the lighters) to see if it really was salt. The ships sailed independently, ours going round north to Madagascar.

On board was Commandant Roux, who was provided with accommodation similar to ours and who sat at the Captain's table. He was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and conducted service for the Boers on Sundays. Otherwise he was not allowed to converse with his fellows. Cape Police listened to his sermon.

We coaled at Mahe in the Seychelles. This took 3 days. Lying in harbour was a Dutch man-of-war and there was some anxiety as regard venturesome spirits getting across to her, and extra sentries were found. Arrived in Ceylon, the prisoners were taken to Diwatalawa but the bulk of the Battalion remained in Colombo. An Indian Battalion was in occupation of the barracks. The sepoys went under canvas but their officers, of course, continued to occupy their quarters and Mess, so we were accommodated in the Bristol Hotel.

One morning their appeared in the street rank and file of the 28th Prussian Infantry! A German troopship, bound for China, was in harbour and they were on their way to join the international force dealing with the Boxer rebellion. An invitation was despatched and they came to lunch. I left for home, on leave, a few days later.