of a Subaltern
(by A.H. Radice, printed in the 'Back Badge' 1935-37)
After a few days the officers were transferred to the Staat Model School which had been prepared to accomodate the 50 officers who had so far been captured by the Boers. Of these 12, belonging to the 18th Hussars and the Mounted Infantry detachments of the King's Royal Rifles and Dublin Fusiliers, had been captured at Dundee, a Lieutenant of the Natal Carabineers I believe had the distinction of being the first officer captured during the war. The Nicholson's Nek prisoners included 5 officers of the 10th Mountain Battery, 19 of the Gloucestershire Regiment, 12 of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and 1 staff officer. These do not include wounded officers and those who were lodged jails, the fate of nearly all colonials who were captured. The Rev. Hoffmeyer, a loyalist minister, was at that time in the jail, later he was allowed to join us in the Model School as his health was suffering.
The school was a long single story red brick building standing on a corner plot of a residential quarter of Pretoria. Breast high railings separated the school from the 2 adjoining streets. We were lodged 8 or 9 to a room and given beds with mattresses and 2 of those brightly coloured rugs called Kaffir blankets. One of the larger rooms was fitted out with long tables and used as a dining room. The school gymnasium retained its apparatus, we found this most useful to keep ourselves fit. Hill, the Adjutant of the 28th, who had been through a gym course in India, organised a class of physical excercises; some 30 officers turned out every morning to be put through the Sandown excercises.
A fat little stumpy Field Cornet was in charge of the prisoners. He knew no word of English. He used to come round very early in the morning and count us in our beds; otherwise there were no roll calls or parades. The actual work of administration was done by his secretary, Dr. Gunning, a red-headed, kindly Hollander who was both Curator of the state museum and Director of the Pretoria Zoo.
The Boers allowed us a ration of bread, tea, and potatoe. A mess committee undertook the thankless task of feeding us on 2/6 a day. We were also allowed to start a shop through which we could buy almost anything we wished from the Pretoria shops. The prices were exhorbitant and we thought the shops were profiteering. However, the real culprit was discovered by chance. The fat Field Cornet was pocketing 100 per cent commission. There was of course no redress. At first money was difficult. But the local bank was induced to cash our cheques, up to 10 pounds, if endorsed by our commanding officer.
The Boers issued us with a suit of civilian clothes but no hats. Through the store it was possible to accumulate a small store of portable food. Some people grew beards so as to look as far as possible like Boers. Our immediate guard consisted of 30 military police who lived in tents pitched on the southern half of the school playground. They were called Zarps from their collar badges formed of the initials of the name of their corps. They were armed with a rifle and revolver.
In our room we were 6 subalterns of the 28th, Temple, Breul, Hill, Short, Beasley and myself besides Gallway of the Natal Carabineers. We began making preparations for escaping. We found out that a train left Pretoria for Delagoa Bay at about 10 at night and that a short distance it had to climb a steep gradient. While preparations were under way the Natal armoured train was ambushed by the Boers near Blaukranz on November 15th and its garrison captured, including Captain Haldane, Gordon Highlanders, Lieut. Frankland, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and Mr Winston Churchill, war correspondent of the Morning Post. On the way to Pretoria the party was joined by Sergeant-Major Brockie of the Imperial Light Horse who had been captured a day or 2 before and posed as an officer, because the Boers were very bitter against that corps, as it was composed mainly of Johannisbergers who had got away before the outbreak of war.
Our first plan for escaping having become impracticable we turned our attention to tunnelling. In the floor of our room was a trapdoor which was screwed down, this we opened and found underneath an air space some2 or 3 feet high the whole length of the building. The ground was very hard and progress was slow. We started by sinking a shaft but we had got no more than 4 feet down when we got to water, it was hopeless, and the attempt came to nothing.
A more ambitious plan was discussed by the senior officers. The main idea was to short-circuit the electric lighting and rush the Zarp tents and seize their arms. Having broken out, the Pretoria armoury was to be seized and the men to be released and armed. But we were unable to find out if there were any arms and ammunition left in the armoury. When Lord Roberts captured Pretoria very few Mausers could be collected to arm the men and many of them were armed with Martinis firing black powder.
By February all of the accomodation at the school had been used up and we were to be moved to new quarters. We all drove in cabs to a large corrugated hut painted white and surrounded by a high "barbed wire entanglement." It was situated on a slope of a hill about a mile north of the town. The Zarps had gone, they were sent to the front, I believe. Our guard consisted of a Commandant, a Vice-Commandant, a Hollander who was manager of an Ideal Milk factory, and a number of men unfit for active service, a rather miserable lot, each armed with a Martini Henry rifle.
On June 6th 1900 the mounted troops, under Colonel Porter, reached Watervaal where some 3000 of our men were confined. The Boers made a stand on the hills above the camps, and bringing a gun into action, shelled the advancing cavalry. Some of the shells fell amongst the prisoners of war who broke out of their camps and scattered over the countryside.
A number of officers released from the Wonderboom Camp were sent out from Pretoria to take charge of the released men and bring them in to Pretoria; a slow business as there was little transport available and a very large proportion of the men were not in a fit state to march through lack of boots and being weak from the privations suffered.
In Pretoria, courts of enquiry were investigating the circumstances in which the prisoners had been captured. As soon as exonerated, those officers whose units were within reach, rejoined them and the others were employed in every imaginable capacity. If I remember rightly, Nisbet and Breul were sent down to take charge of railway stations; Capt. Duncan became registrar of births, deaths and marriages, with an office at Pretoria; Col. Humphrey went to Durban to resume command of the 28th who were recuperating after the hardships of the siege of Ladysmith, and took Hill, the Adjutant, and several officers with him. The remaining officers were posted to provisional battalions which were being formed from the released prisoners. Bryant, Temple, Mackenzie, H.H. Smith, Gray, and myself were posted to Col. Bullock's (Devons) Provisional Battalion.
The men were armed with old and most unservicable rifles found at the Pretoria armoury. I managed to get for myself a Mauser carbine. Col. Bullock's Battalion was ordered south to protect the railway. We went first to Germistown to protect the mines there. In the Orange River Colony De Wet had again crossed the railway at Roodevaal Station, where he capture a train carrying a large consignment of mails for the troops and was so ill-advised as to burn it with its contents. Nothing could have angered the troops more than having their letters from home burnt. De Wet became a public enemy!
Our Provisional Battalion was ordered south to form fortified posts along the railway and it was not long before a train of open trucks arrived to take us into the Orange River Colony. We rumbled slowly through the night and shortly after day-break stopped at a wayside station called Honing Spruit. It was very cold and hoar-frost was thick on the veldt, on the trucks and on my blankets in which I was wrapped trying to keep out the cold.
A dull explosion and a cloud of dust hanging over a culvert we had just passed told us that the line had been blown up behind us. Snatching up my carbine and bandolier I sent my subalterns to fall in the company and reported for orders to Colonel Bullock. A second explosion to the southward told us that the line had been cut also in the direction of Kronstadt. Colonel Bullock gave us orders to form a defensive line round the station buildings facing north and east and to improvise cover. A few mounted Boers could be seen riding about on the sky-line to the north-east. There was not the slightest cover, the veldt being as featureless as a billiard table and almost as hard. If the men kept still their khaki uniforms would blend with ground and make them very hard to spot from a distance. After a while the enemy brought up a gun and opened fire from the north and several men were hit. A surgeon, Cheatle, improvised a dressing station in one of the station buildings and Gray helped him to dress the wounded. Later in the day the enemy brought up a second gun, of our own 15 pounders captured at Sannahs Post, where a RHA battery had been surprised, and opened fire from the east. This went on for an hour or two, the ordeal of having to lie in the open exposed to artillery fire, badly armed, and unable to hit back, was rather more than some of my men were able to stand. A couple of shells burst just over our heads, someone shouted "They've got our range!" and about half the men ran back towards the railway and threw themselves down behind the railway embankment. A third gun fired a few rounds at us but was soon withdrawn. The Boers did not press their attack and in the afternoon began to withdraw, a gun-fire was heard from the south; not long after mounted infantry scouts came up over the veldt. Our casualties were Major Hobbs, West Yorkshire Regiment, and four other ranks killed, and 2nd Lieut. H.H. Smith, 28th, and 19 other ranks wounded.
Honing Spruit was reinforced by a section of artillery and a few South African Mounted Infantry. Detachments were sent out to establish posts along the line. My Company was posted at a bridge. One day a train momentarily stopped at the post to drop off some stores, I spotted some back-badges on board and was able to greet some old "C" Company reservists who had left the 28th in Calcutta and were serving in the 61st Mounted Infantry. In the meantime trouble was brewing in North China. India was preparing a large expeditionary force and asked for the brigade sent to Natal to be returned. All detached officers and men of the 28th were ordered to proceed to Ladysmith to rejoin their battalion. At Ladysmith the Station Officer gave us orders to follow the 28th to Durban. We reached Durban rather late at night. Several of the 28th officers were still in the club including Hill, who told us that the greater part of the Regiment had already sailed in 2 ships with Boer prisoners and that the remainder of the Battalion was embarking next morning in a third transport ship taking a further bactch of prisoners to Ceylon.
We had an uneventful voyage across the Indian Ocean. The prisoners gave no trouble during the voyage. We reached Colombo before we were expected and disembarkation was ordered for early next morning. During the evening 2 Boers tried to escape by swimming to a German ship which was moored not far from our ship but the harbour police had a boat patrolling round the ship; both prisoners were captured. At four next morning we started disembarking the prisoners. I had been detailed to command the escort. A number of lighters had been brought alongside and a couple of boats manned by the harbour police were hovering around. I placed a guard in each lighter and then the Boers began to file down the gangway and into each lighter in turn. The lighters were towed to the quay where a guard of the 60th stood ready to receive them. As they disembarked they filed straight into a waiting train. The 60th were in charge of the prisoner of war camp at Dyatalawa up in the hills, some hours by train from Colombo.
The barracks were occupied by the Ceylon Mauritius Garrison Artillery and an Indian Regiment which normally formed the Colombo garrison. We were allotted accommodation for Battalion HQ and 3 companies only. The remaining 5 companies were to go to Ragama where an internment camp was being prepared in the jungle some miles inland from Colombo. It was not long before the small depot we had left beind in Allahabad, under the command of Captain Russell rejoined bringing with it the heavy baggage of the Battalion and the married families. When Lieut. Hill went on leave, Lieut. Knox was appointed acting Adjutant. Unfortunately he was taken ill with meningitis and I was detailed to carry on in his place. Poor Knox, despite every care, died after a few days illness.
The South Afican War was still dragging on its weary length. The Ceylon Volunteers offered to raise a second contingent for service in South Africa, the offer was accepted by the War Office and we were ordered to enlist the volunteers as a company of the Gloucestershire Regiment and equip them. In a few days the contingent was up to strength, the men clothed and equipped, and were given our regimental numbers and badges.
The detachment at Ragama had an unpleasant incident with the Boer prisoners, one of them tried to escape by crawling through the barbed wire entanglements round the camp. He was seen by a sentry who shouted to him several times to get back. The Boer took no notice and the sentry shot him dead. This caused some excitement, Command HQ thought the sentry should be tried. Major Capel Cure maintained that the sentry had only done his duty as his orders plainly said that he should shoot escaping prisoners. Eventually Command HQ gave in and there was no court martial.
We expected to move back to India during the 1902-03 trooping season but no orders were received until the end of December. Actually it was several weeks before a transport arrived to take us to Calcutta, the regimental flag flying at the fore and the band playing "The girl I left behind" the ship began slowly to forge ahead.