Ten Months' Imprisonment
by Major H. Rummins, OBE (Gloucestershire Regimental Journal, 1933)
I was one of that ill-fated little force sent out from Ladysmith to Nicholson's Nek on the night of the 29th October 1899, and about 5 pm, on the 30th found ourselves prisoners of war to the Boers. Historians will tell you we were disarmed and sent in wagons to Waschbank Station; this may have applied to the Officers, but as to the 850 rank and file it was certainly not so. We marched a considerable distance and across the veldt, and eventually halted for the night, and I distinctly remember what a piercingly cold night it was. The following morning we were on the move early and continued the march to Waschbank Station where we arrived devilishly hungry and thirsty. We then entrained for Pretoria. The Gloucesters numbered one Colour-Sergt, 12 Sergts. and approximately 350 men. Arriving at Pretoria we were encamped on the Racecourse, while the permanent camp at Waterval was being prepared; during our stay in Pretoria we were treated fairly well as regards food - for instance, on our arrival we were issued with a 1lb tin of bully beef, bread and coffee, and I always look back on that meal in spite of my antipathy to bully beef, as one of the best meals I had during my military career (hunger is a good sauce). After about a fortnight in Pretoria we were moved to Waterval, where long tin sheds had been erected for our reception. The whole surrounded by a network of barbed wire, outide of which our guards were posted. These consisted of very old men and very young boys, the former were very bitter against us and the latter eager to loose of their rifles on the slightest provocation. On cold and wet nights, some of the old sentries used to mount an umbrella and a small devil containing a charcaol fire and the bolder spirits aming us derived a certain amount of amusement by throwing an occasional stone at the fire, but one had to be careful.
During our stay in Pretoria, small contingents of various regiments had been brought in, others continued to arrive after we moved to Waterval, so that at the end of the month we began to look quite a sizeable little force. Little did we dream how large this force was to become. At this time our hut consisted of one Colour-Sergt. and 12 Sergts of the Gloucesters, one Clr-Sergt and 4 Sergts of the Suffolks, and 3 Sergts of the Devons. I might here remark that one of the Sergts of the Devons afterwards became a distinguished General. News was very difficult to obtain and that which we did get was very unreliable. The Boers were always winning and the British suffering defeat. One source of information eagerly looked forward to was through the Boer paper Volkstem, this we used to get usually on Sundays, when the parson came from Pretoria to conduct service and left the corner sticking out of his pocket for the detailed one to pinch. The news in this however, was usually dished up for the benefit of the Boers and which we termed all-lies. There was very little money amongst us, but as fresh contingents arrived, the wealth of the camp before more enhanced, and of course, gambling was rife - such games as "Crown and Anchor," "House," and "Banker" being the principal games. There were many others of course, as to make Epsom Downs on Derby Day look like a Sunday School Outing. Candles were at a premium; we used to get a small issue and these could always be disposed of at sixpence each, considerably more to the wealthy owner of a gambling table in times of shortage. I believe that we (the 12) had about 36 bob between us, and I remember playing Nap for this one occasion for about 30 hours, apart from meals. I forget what happened in the end to the 36 bob, but it still remained in the school, which was something. As you may imagine, fights were very numerous, and afforded quite a lot of amusement. It was not so much going to see a fight, as to which fight you would go to see. Food, of course, was very poor, we lived principally on mealy meal and rice with salt; occasionally we recieved an issue of bread and on rare occasions meat. Butter was not on our menu, but as a substitute we got a very long and broad fat sheep's tail, usually very rancid, but eatable when rendered down. I believe the Boers bred the particular kind of sheep more for the tails than anything else. Peaches in the seaon were very plentiful. Tobacco, such as it was, could be had in plenty - it was issued in sacks like wheat, and was very short and dry. Each smoker provided himself with a small bag and a pair of wire tongs, usually carried on the belt; the small bag was replenished as required from the sack, and as there were no matches, the tongs were used for pricking a small brand from any fire one came across to light the pipe. As wood was scarce one did not always welcome strangers poking about for the brightest bit of burning ember, but it was a recognised practice throughout the camp, and the Britisher - always being pally in times of adversity, very few rows occurred in consequence. Concerts were organised and some very good singers were found in the camp. Also we used to dance to the music of a piccolo that one of the prisoners brought in, and to see three or four hundred lusty fellows doing the Lancers, and suchlike, in hobnail boots and a cloud of veldt dust must have made a native war-dance look tame in comparison. Anyhow it helped to keep us fit, which was all to the good. Christmas came, and some kindly disposed people in Pretoria gave a ration of mutton, which was very acceptable. Some messes, however, went short as the Boer Quartermaster did not know our 'C' Company gang of champion "lifters." I remember one of these, seeing half a bag of mealy outside the stores, going up to the sentry and asking for a lift-up as he had forgotten it when rations were drawn, he got away with it too. The Quartermaster missed it and came in to search the Camp for it - he had some hopes. One of these bright lads got a month in prison in Pretoria for lifting the Commandant's pouch belt and pistol from his office.
Trials at escape were numerous, usually by burrowing under the wire and coming up outside. One of these had a comic ending. Six Sergeants in one of the huts made their tunnel and on a selected night entered fully determined to depart; unfortunately in the party was one "tubby" an Armourer Sergeant who entered third man and got stuck in the middle. The ones in front lost touch and made so much noise trying to find out what had happened that the first man on popping his head above the ground, at the outlet, like a rabbit, found two sentries awaiting his appearence. They got the first two, the others managed to withdraw dragging "tubby" with them more dead than alive, and only just in time, as the Boers came into the camp to search for the entrance to the tunnel.
I must now describe some of the events which occurred after our removal from Waterval. This happened when Lord Roberts with his Army was close to Pretoria. The Camp Commandant ordered the Gloucesters and Irish Fusiliers to fall in for removal to a new camp, and under instructions from our seniors we entrained like a lot of lambs and were actually passing through Pretoria when our shells were bursting on the forts alongside the railway. It makes me wild, even to this day, to think what fools we were; the strength of the Camp at Waterval at this time was about 4000. If my memory is not at fault, we were the only 2 regiments moved; we were taken to a place named Nooitgedacht on the Crocodile River, and turned into a swampy bit of ground, wired in, but with no covering of any sort against the weather. Fortunately, I hade been able to scrounge a very large blanket when we first camped in Pretoria, and after making a hole in the ground, stretched this across a ridge pole, pegged down the sides and managed to keep fairly dry in spite of some heavy rain. Conditions during this latter part of our confinement were much worse. Food was more scarce. The Boers were being hard pressed, and, I believe, were very short themselves. I had one complaint against them in this connection. The Abent Minded Beggar Fund had been started at home, and goods of all description, including a considerable amount of tinned food, had been sent out to be distributed to the troops; a share of this had been sent up for the prisoners of war. This, however, was not issued free, but sold by the Boer Quartermaster to those who had money to pay. After a short time in this swampy hole, many of the men became sick and deaths began to occur. Our medical officer was a black-bearded old Russian who had an ambulance train on the railway close to the camp. He was a good-hearted old fellow, who hated to see the conditions under which we were living, and threatened to take his ambulance away unless the Boers moved us, or did something to improve things. Whether he carried out his threat, or moved according to plan, the fact remains, he left a week before our release. His medical comforts he distributed among the prisoners; my share being a Lazenby Soup Tablet. I remember a bit of luck coming our way with regard to food. A small contingent of prisoners were brought in belonging to a crack Yeomanry Regiment; they had plenty of money and practically bought out the Boer's stores. A day or so after, one of our party, on going down to the river for water, saw one of them making a pot of stew with a piece of buck he had bought. He asked: "How much of this beastly curry does one put in, Sergeant?" The Sergeant looked in the pot and advised, before putting any curry in, more water was required. The trooper took his can to get more water and the Sergeant passed away with the pot of stew. We had a good feed that day. The same Sergeant played a trick on the Boers worth recounting. A family named Emmett were farming in the Transvaal on the outbreak of war; the father fought on the Boer side; the son elected to throw in their lot with the British. Of course, the Boers were always on the look-out for him, and rumours got around that he had been captured, and was confined in the prisoners of war camp. The guards searched the camp on two or three occasions for him, but as a matter of fact, none of them knew Emmett. On the last search the before-mentioned Sergeant pointed to a man of ours, belonging to 'F' Company, winked at one of the guards, and whispered "Emmett." As none of the guards could say whether he was Emmett or not, in spite of his protestations, he was taken out of camp to one of the Depots for identification. The joke, however, was with him, he returned in about a week, having had some good food, about 30 bob in his pocket and a new rig-out. In recounting his experiences afterwards, he said: "They didn't half --- well laugh when they saw me." We heard later that Emmett was captured and given 15 years imprisonment.
Another bit of amusement we had, when one of the prisoners smuggled a pair of wire-cutters into camp and cut the wire entanglememts two or three times a week. The Commandant was furious and used to parade and count us on each occasion, searched us and the dug-outs, but he never got the wire-cutters, or the man who used them.
Conditions in the camp had been going from bad to worse; we were half starved, mostly in rags, and sickness was rife. You can imagine therefore with what joy we heard the order on the 30th August to fall in for release. Just 10 months to the day after our capture. How we cheered the short farewell speech of General Botha, in which he said: "Soldiers of the Queen, you are being released today, and I trust when we next meet, we shall not be fighting each other. Goodbye."
3669 Sergeant H. Rummins was listed as Missing in Action, 30 Oct. 1899.