Chapter IV – March to Belmont

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  5. Chapter IV – March to Belmont


  • Chapter Overview – Preparing to March – Australians Need to March – Sick in Hospital
  • The March Begins – Abandoning the Mule – Pleasant Marching
  • The Orange River
  • Only 6 Miles in 7 Hours – Arrival at Wittikuts – Enemy Shelling Ahead!
  • Admiring the Sky – A Whiff of Home – We’ll Eat As We March!
  • The Exciting March – Arrival at Belmont
  • The Australian Circus – Meeting the Canadians – The Cheerful Company
  • Battlefield at Belmont: Story by The West Australian

Chapter Overview – Preparing to March – Australians Need to March

Chapter Overview

The Australian Regiment was put on a forced march from De Aar to Belmont. It lasted for over 24 hours. They left De Aar at 3 a.m. (7/12/99) and arrived at Belmont at 6 a.m. (8/12/99)

Preparing to March

The announcement was received in camp with tremendous cheering, and active preparations are going on for moving. Tents are to be struck at sundown, and the men will sleep in the open air.

Our first objective is Belmont where a tough battle was fought with the Boers a fortnight ago. It is reported that the place is again threatened by a commando from the Orange Free State, and as there is only a small force stationed there, the Australians are wanted to help. It is about 26 miles distant, and we have 24 hours to do it in from time of starting, for the Beers generally attack at dawn, and are expected almost, hourly. They blew up a culvert three miles beyond Belmont today and shot a Remington scout.

Australians Need to March

It is reported that we are to foot it all the way to Kimberley, as the Imperial authorities have decided that the Australians want experience in marching. It appears that when the contingents marched from the wharf to Maitland camp 6 West Australians, 16 Tasmanians and 23 Victorians fell out along the line of march, and the medical authorities augured from this that, though Australians were doubtless good walkers in their own free and easy style, they wanted practice in marching in close order and carrying arms and equipment. Hence the seventy-mile tramp to Kimberley that appears to be before us.

Sick in Hospital

No. 91 Trooper Arthur Groser, No. 95 Trooper Alex Wark and either No. 103 Trooper John Reynolds or No. 123 Trooper Henry Reynolds were left behind at De Aar in hospital as they were too sick to march.

The March Begins – Abandoning the Mule – Pleasant Marching

The March Begins

The camp at Orange River was astir long before dawn, for reveille sounded at 2 o’clock. At this unearthly hour there is no light, and it seemed like getting up in the middle of the night. Tents having been struck the night before, and silence everywhere, the camp seemed solitary and deserted till the bugle call rang out like Gabriel’s trumpet, seeming to awake life from the dead. Men rose with alacrity, refreshed by sleeping in the sweet open air, and proceeded to roll up their kits. It was pitch dark, and we scrambled through our work by the flickering light of the camp fires. Then coffee, hastily partaken of, and the troops, after examining arms and placing their hits on the wagons, were ready for the march. Dawn was just breaking, and it seemed that half the distance would be accomplished before breakfast.

Abandoning The Mule

It had not taken me long to find out that the war correspondent who hopes to get along comfortably has to know how to shift for himself; the fellow who makes himself a nuisance fooling around the officers’ quarters soon. They are too busy with their own concerns to want to play wet nurse to the newspaper man in trouble. We marched away with the troops on foot. Our native “Violets” led a pack horse; we had discarded the mule he was more dangerous than a battery of artillery and we both reckoned that it would be an inartistic ending to a war trip to be kicked out of time by a low bred South African mule.

Pleasant Marching

It was pleasant marching through the glory of an African dawn, even though the track was sandy and soft. The stars faded out and the day broke gloriously as we strode along towards the Orange River; but all the pleasure parted from us as soon as the sun arose. There is no mistake about an African sun, it wastes no time; as soon as it appears above the horizon it makes itself felt in unmistakable earnestness.

The Orange River

The Orange River

At Orange River our troubles began, for there the ground is broken and rocky and the wretched little rats of mules could make no headway against the trouble. The Orange River is an imposing sight, fully eighty yards wide from bank to bank; from the surface to the bed of the river it is about 45ft.

There was not much water in it when we crossed, but in the rainy season, which will commence about the end of this month, there will be from twenty-five to thirty feet of water raging between the banks. The water comes down from the adjacent mountains at a terrific rate, and the river often rises as much as twenty feet in the space of twelve hours.

There is a grand iron bridge across it, which is jealously guarded by a body of troops, for if this bridge were to fall into the hands of the enemy when the waters were up, then General Methuen’s army would be cut off from its main base of operations. The line of communication must therefore be kept open at all costs; otherwise, Methuen’s men would starve, for Kimberley is still invested by the enemy, in spite of all that the cables may say to the contrary.

Only 6 Miles in 7 Hours – Arrival at Wittikuts – Enemy Shelling Ahead!

Only 6 Miles in 7 Hours

After leaving the Orange River behind us we had a terribly rough time with the transports. The mules (14 to each wagon) were simply worthless. They would not pull together and had no weight to stand the rocking of the heavy wagons. The track was sandy, but thickly interspersed with rocks. Had we but had camels for transport purposes, we could have made a veritable picnic out of what proved to be a terribly rough time.

From 4 a.m. until 11 a.m., under a sweltering sun, with jibbing mules all the time, we only covered six miles. Then we left the hilly country and struck the veldt, where the track was mostly sand. The native-drivers flogged those wretched animals with raw green-hide whips. They abused them in long, drawn-out howls of weirdest melody. They cursed the mules and their fathers and mothers and all their kindred, and the troop moved along on our flank doggedly.

Arrival at Wittikuts

At last, dead tired and leg-weary with the wretched transport toil, we struck a place called Witteput. We had been short of water all day and short of food as well; and right glad were we to drop down on the hot sand at Witteput as the sun dipped westward.

We arrived here up to appointed time without a man falling out on the way. If this does not satisfy the authorities that we can march, nothing will. It was 7 o’clock before the last mule team left camp, and a portion of the troops had to wait about in marching order with the baggage, in case of a Boer attack. Even as it was the column was a mile long and if the Mounted Rifles had not been on hand to do scouting, we might have been attacked and cut off in detail, as we passed innumerable kopjes where Boers could have been hiding.

What with waiting for the wagons and various unavoidable stop pages, it was mid-day before Wittikuts was reached, eleven miles distant. The sun was intensely hot, and a good many suffered severely from thirst, but all were in rank when numbers were called for.

Enemy Shelling Ahead!

At Wittikuts news was telegraphed that the Boers were shelling a train a few miles beyond Belmont. Sixty Mounted Rifles (Victorians) were sent forward at a hand gallop. They had a most exciting ride but were too late to take part in the fight. The Boers did not succeed in hitting the train, and were driven off by the Northumberlands, who came up with a battery from the opposite direction. The Mounteds rode 10 miles in a single hour and were busy guarding vital points around Belmont for the rest of the day. The Mounteds were very much disappointed, as they expected to get “first blood.”

They are a remarkably fine, serviceable looking lot when on horseback, and are just the men wanted for this country and mode of warfare. It is difficult to conceive why the Home Authorities should have preferred infantry from Australia. On every side we hear complaints of hard fought engagements rendered ineffective through want of cavalry and mounted infantry.

Admiring the Sky – A Whiff of Home – We’ll Eat As We March!

Admiring The Sky

As we waited for the rations and the water we had a splendid chance to admire the sky above us, though in no mood or poetry. Neither were we Australians strangers to gorgeous sunsets, but none of us had ever gazed upon a scene like that before. Great masses of evil-looking black clouds seemed to be almost within touching distance from the tops of the wagons, whilst flanking these black battalions huge, luminous masses of angry, crimson-coloured clouds kept sullen watch.

The air was as thick as mud in the nostrils of man and beast, and we prayed for rain with fervid earnestness. The thunder rolled ominously, and the lightning leapt from the edges of the black clouds in myriad darts, like, the burnished bayonets of a legion of our guards; but still the rain kept off.

A Whiff of Home

At Wittikuts we got a whiff of home. An English farmer named Fincham had a number of gum trees growing in his garden. The sight was a refreshing one, for trees of any kind are almost as scarce in this country as snakes in Ireland. Mr.Fincham is the only loyal farmer in this neighbourhood, all his neighbours being hand and glove with the Free Staters. A squad of soldiers is stationed at his house to keep the Boers from shooting him, as they have threatened to do.

This country (Griqualand), called after the Griquas, a mixed Dutch and Hottentot race has been annexed by the Free State, as Bechuanaland to the north was added to the Transvaal. The war is playing havoc among these border farmers. Through having his wire fences cut Mr. Fincham has lost 300 ostriches valued at £9 each. He is likely to get compensation from the Imperial Government.

*Fincham’s Farm was around 2 kilometres out of Wittikutts and is where the Australian regiment stayed.

We’ll Eat As We March!

We panted like dogs in the sunshine. The rations were served out, and each man got his pint of water, and it. looked as if our troubles were over for the night, when down from the telegraph station galloped our colonel. He rode amongst his men and held the “wire” aloft, and we all sat in a silence so unbroken that the sigh of a mule as he sniffed at the clouds was a positive pain to us.

Then our “old man” spoke, and the ring in his voice told of war before the words reached us. His words were — “Men, the Boers have invested Belmont, and they have sent to us for rapid help. We march within two hours.” With a bound our men were on their feet, all their weariness forgotten. Like the ring of steel on steel, the cheers broke from them:

“To Belmont! To Belmont! We’re ready now, Colonel, we’ll eat as we march!”

The “Old Man’s” bronzed cheek flushed; it may have been the last ray of the setting sun kissing his weather-beaten face, or it may have been the proud rush of his British blood as he heard that cheer from Australia’s virgin army, even as they stood almost within reach of the foe. He looked at them in silence for a moment; then crisp and clear on me evening air his order rang — for he had taken them at their word — “Fall in,” and they fell in.

The mules were kicked into harness. The night came on as only an African night can come, not stealing softly with lingering footsteps, but swooping down with a kind of savage suddenness, until all the earth was wrapped in blackness, and the man who moved had to feel before he stepped. No noise was made, the orders were given in hashed tones, for we all knew well that Boer spies were all around us, ready to catch and use every word.

The Exciting March – Arrival at Belmont

The Exciting March

We waited 12 hours at Wittikuts and in deference to a telegram at midnight commenced a night march to Belmont. This turned out to be an exciting and memorable experience, as it rained part of the night and thundered, with vivid flashes of lightning, during the remainder. The troops marched with rounds of ammunition, and from information received a fight with the enemy appeared certain, though events proved that they were engaged elsewhere.

Mingled with the lightning flashes appeared the searchlight at Kimberley reflected on the northern horizon like small Aurora Borealis, by which the beleaguered ones were signalling messages to Orange River (70 Miles). We heard here that the De Beers Company are manufacturing their own shells and firing them into the enemy’s camp marked “With Cecil Rhodes’s compliments.”

On through the sullen darkness all that dreary night they marched now pushing ahead to reconnoitre, now falling back to guard a straggling team. The Mounted Rifles were the eyes of the little army, and right royally did they do their work. If a suspicious sound was heard away on either flank they rode out to face it, and then back with the crisp “All’s well,” and so on, until at the dawn of Friday morning they marched into Belmont, and the Gordons turned out to give them a welcoming cheer.

Arrival at Belmont

Just at daylight we arrived at Belmont Farm, where the first part of the Battle of Belmont was fought. The Boers had held a kopje on one side of the road but had been speedily driven back on their main body two miles further on. At Belmont station we found two companies of the Munster Fusiliers and a couple of guns. They were very glad of our arrival, for the scouts had brought in news that a thousand Boers were hovering round to the eastward.

The Australians arrived tired, covered with dust, hungry and thirsty, but ready for any fighting there might be on hand. However, the Boers, though all round us, have not ventured to attack. I hear that the Colonel has since received a wire from General Lord Methuen congratulating him on the success of his forced march and, indeed, it was an extremely creditable achievement considering the darkness of the night and the amount of baggage impediments to bring either men or material on the way.

Belmont is a dirty, dusty point on the railway line, and the water supply for horses is distant a Sabbath day’s journey. Our men were in good health and spirits, despite their fatigue, and by evening were well rested, and fit enough for anything. They were to stand to arms at 3 o’clock next morning, in readiness for whatever the Boer may bring. It was the “real thing” now, and the Australians had got over the thrilling sensation and eye-glistening caused by orders to them as sentries to use their bayonet or fire into persons who did not promptly stand when called upon at the outpost line. we camped virtually on the battlefield, which was strewn with cartridge cases, and smelt strongly of dead horse.

The Australian Circus – Meeting the Canadians – The Cheerful Company

The Australian Circus

We had every man safe, and every team was in its place, though our fellows had been on their feet from 2 o’clock in the morning of Thursday until dawn of the following day. Each man had carried his full fighting kit, with 120 rounds of ammunition in his bandolier and his water and rations beside; yet their first question was — “Where is the enemy?”

They fairly foamed at the mouth when the Gordons’ told them how the Boers, hearing that reinforcements were arriving by road as well as by train, had fired a few shells into Belmont and drawn off after cutting the telegraph line and pulling up a few miles of railway line. I have only got a blue lead pencil to write with, so cannot do justice to the language of “our boys” when they heard that after all their long and desperate forced march the wily Boers had done them out of a fight. A scribe wants a red paint brush to attempt to go into details, for they water-coloured their speech until it was like a rainbow running through a summer sunset in old Australia.

“It’s going to be the cursed Soudan over again; all march and no fight” groaned one. “Oh, a bally picnic without the girls and the whisky” howled another. “Picnic be damned” yelled a third. “It’s a circus!”.

A grand Australian circus got up to amuse the kids and give the newspaper devils something to write about. And so, in their wrath they gibed and jeered out of the soreness of their hearts until the Gordons and those wild fighting devils, the Munster Fusilleers came along and consoled them, and told them there would be sure to be a front seat for them in a big fight in the near future.

Then they dropped down on the sand and slept like logs. Poor beggars, they are very jealous of the honour of Australia, and it will be a thundering shame if they don’t get a chance to show the marrow in the bones of the boys from the sunny South.

Meeting The Canadians

All the Canadians came up and joined us this afternoon, and they are posted away about a mile and a half north-east of the main camp in order to hold a range of kopjes against the enemy. A squad of Royal Horse Artillery with four twelve pounder guns also arrived today, and have been quartered with us, so it looks as if we were to get a bit of it at last. We will at least be in good fighting company.

The Cheerful Company

That the West Australians were by no means “knocked out” by their march was shown when after breakfast Captain Moor called for a few volunteers to throw up a small parapet to protect the Maxim guns in case of attack. Instead of a few men turning wearily out, as might have been expected, the whole company responded with alacrity, and plenty of boulders being at hand, a wall a yard high was speedily erected, not only in front of the Maxims, but along the whole line of tents. When dirt was thrown against the outer side a valuable defence against rifle bullets had arisen, and in case of a night attack the West Australians will be the only company with earthworks to get behind.

Battlefield at Belmont: Story by The West Australian

Battlefield of Belmont

*Story by The West Australian*

This morning I went over the kopjes from which General Methuen, with 6,000 men and splendidly served artillery, drove De La Rey’s commando of Free State Boers a fortnight ago. The first kopje rises abruptly about 200 feet from the plain. The sides and top are completely covered with loose stones ranging from a hundred weight to several tons in weight. I had some difficulty in reaching the summit, and it was Comforting to reflect that the Boers on the top were dead-poor wretches, instead of alive and shooting. Nevertheless the Munsters and the Guards charged up this hill and several others like it, chasing the Boers who were mounted could get away easily down the kopje, and up and down another like rabbits in their ware.

The Munsters were spread out in order, and lost not a single man, the bullets whistled between them like hail but the Guards were not extended and lost heavily. The British artillery fairly paralysed the Boers, for no sooner was the range found than the top of the kopje was smothered with shells. Most of the dead Boers are lying in heaps with stones thrown over them and in one spot I saw where a shell had exploded among the horses, killing 10 of them. On one of the kopjes there is an old Boer of Krugerian aspect sitting in a chair dead. Probably he was placed in the chair while wounded and died while his comrades were engaged elsewhere. It is a grim sight.

Most of the Boers engaged in this battle were lads of 16 to 20 with a few old men to lead them. A wounded Boer prisoner told me at Orange River that full descriptions of the Australians had been circulated among the Boers, with orders to look out for them specially, as among the enemy the idea prevails that the Australians are marksmen like themselves.

From the same source I heard of a curious incident that occurred at the battle of Elands Laagte. When the Gordons charged up the hill one of them threw down his rifle and danced Highland Fling on top of a rock, this act contributing greatly to the terror of the Boers, who thought the man-woman was performing some devilish incantation for their benefit. Stories of Boer marksmanship are varied as ever, and I cannot yet decide whether the majority of them are duffers or marvels.

People who think lightly of the terrible effect of the artillery on them say that if they could shoot at all they should have held Belmont for six months instead of six hours but I hear of instances of very good shooting among them. In one engagement a British soldier was lying behind a rock which completely protected his body but left the top of his canteen exposed. This canteen was drilled with six bullets at a distance of 500 yards in the space of a few minutes and has been sent home to the United Service Museum as a curio.