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Volunteers on the Veld

An excerpt from the illustrated "Volunteers on the Veld: Britain's Citizen-soldiers and the South African War." by Stephen M. Miller, originally published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2007, ISBN  - 0806138645, 9780806138640, 236 pages

Stephen M. Miller is "Adelaide C. and Alan L. Bird" Professor, and Chair, of the Department of History at the University of Maine, USA. His research focuses on the British Army and the South African War.

When the Second Boer War erupted in South Africa in 1899, Great Britain was confident that victory would come quickly and decisively. Instead, the war lasted for three grueling years. To achieve final victory, the British government was forced to depend not only on its Regular Army but also on a large volunteer force.

The British Volunteer Force       21
The Outbreak of War               38
Recruitment                       55
The Journey to South Africa       77
The Experience of War             96
The Transition to Guerrilla War  119
The Return of the Volunteers     147
Notes                            173
Bibliography                     209
Index                            225

. . .

                    THE JOURNEY TO SOUTH AFRICA                    89

is going to live; I think most of us after our experience that morning
can vouch for the truth of this statement."49 As )ohn Patcrson bluntly
wrote, many a man "had to feed the sharks."50 William Grant of the
Seventeenth (Ayrshire) Company Imperial Yeomanry unhappily
entered into his diary on 3 February 1901 that some of his shipboard
mates did not successfully make it to the rails, and he was stuck
swabbing the deck of the Tagus.51 The rough seas were particularly
hard on the SS Cavour, which transported a number of horses as well
as men. "Damnable is only a mild word for it," Lt. W. S. Power,
Eighth (Derbyshire) Company Imperial Yeomanry, wrote to his
cousin. "After all the bad weather we have had, it's now worse than
ever & here we are 'lying to' God knows where. It's been something
awful, and if we hadn't stopped we shouldn't have had a live horse on
hoard. They were being knocked about like peas in boiling water." 52

Once the seas quieted down and the men acclimated to their
new environment, the work began in earnest. As was the case on
land, few chose to write about their daily duties at sea. Most made
only passing references to drill, parade, lectures, and guard duty. For
target practice, wooden crates were thrown overboard. Kit inspec-
tion was a "never ending harassment to the men."^ Evidence indi-
cates that shipboard responsibilities varied considerably, though
they were greater on ships transporting horses. The animals required
a great deal of attention: three feedings a day, regular exercise and
grooming, and daily treatment and "mucking out" of the stables.
Aboard the transport ship, some like (.'apt. K. S. Britten. Thirty-
seventh (Buckinghamshire) Company Imperial Yeomanry, began to
regret their decision to volunteer. "Fighting for one's country
sounds fine until you start on the job," he recorded in his diary.54
For most, however, it was aboard ship that a real sense of cama-
raderie began to develop, and nothing was more important to primary-
group cohesion than the time spent together in leisure away from drill
and duty. Entertainment and sport were vital elements of the soldier's
experience of war. These activities shaped his outlook on events and
how he remembered the war. They sustained morale by keeping him
content and his thoughts occupied. And they helped develop esprit de
corps. Officers were well aware of these benefits of organized enter-
tainment and sport and used this time in transit wisely.
Most volunteers preferred to write about shipboard entertain-
ment rather than work. No doubt they thought their families,

90                    VOLUNTEERS ON THE VELD

friends, and others would prefer to read about it as well. There were
a variety of organized events available to them. Many of the sporting
competitions pitted the men of one company against another. There
were potato races, boxing matches, mounted wrestling, and tug-of-
war and obstacle-course competitions." In a letter to his uncle,
Julius Bernstein, a surgeon who volunteered in late 1900, described
a form of shipboard cricket in which the hall was tied to a lump of
string to allow for its easy retrieval.5* William Home recalled "tilt-
ing the bucket," a game in which one man, carrying a lance while
atop a second man, attempted to knock over a mil bucket ot water.
If the lancer missed, water was poured over both men's heads as they
charged under it.S7
Unlike the games, church services, smokers, concerts, and other
regularly scheduled events—all relatively ordinary activities—"cross-
ing the line" was a truly unique event. For centuries, veteran British
sailors crossing the equator have subjected first-timers to an initia-
tion ritual. During the South African War, volunteers, both officers
and men, were forced to submit as well. Thomas Wetton left behind
one of the better detailed accounts of volunteers "crossing the
line."58 Wetton first went to South Africa as a stretcher bearer with
the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1900. When the third contingent
of Imperial Yeomanry was raised two years later, he signed up with
the 151st Company. Because of the poor performance of the second
contingent, these men had to endure nearly five months of training
at Aldershot before they embarked for the war. As a result, by the
time Wetton and his battalion arrived in Natal, the war was over. In
Wetton's Reminiscences of the 34th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry,
he describes the ceremony aboard the Assayed9 After a fanfare of
bugles, the men who had never made the crossing were "arrested"
and dragged onto the deck. They were then cast at the feat of the
ship's crew, who were dressed as King Neptune and his court. The
men were forced to swallow cold soup, doused in flour, then a mix-
ture of paste and tar was applied to their faces with brooms. Next
they were ceremoniously shaved with wooden razors and dropped
onto a canvas bath, where they were "ducked" and "hosepiped."
Wetton's telling, which is similar to other accounts, suggests that the
volunteers enjoyed the experience and were glad for the diversion.
Apart from organized entertainment, the men found a number of
ways to keep themselves busy and to make the voyage seem a bit

                 THE JOURNEY TO SOUTH AFRICA                      91

shorter. These included letter and diary writing, reading, and playing
chess and quoits. H. R. Lister wrote home that the crew of the SS
Briton had "rigged up a sail hath for us on the poop and I have been
enjoying the sea water every morning."60 Music and songs inevitably
filled the evening air. One could hear bagpipes, flutes, bugles, and
drums playing. On some transport ships, like the SS Guelph. there
were pianos, and where there were not, the men improvised and
played makeshift instruments such as covered combs and empty tin
cans.61 Aboard the Manchester Merchant. Charles Dixon Kimber, a
lieutenant in the Forty-eighth (North Somerset) Company Imperial
Yeomanry, organized a choir.63 And on the Ariosto, J. Barclay Lloyd,
Lionel Curtis, and other CIV troopers sang almost nightly, including
one of Barclay Lloyd's favorite verses:

    Sons of the Empire marching on to war
    With our brave Colonials going on before
    CIV will conquer and break 'old Koojer's' [sic] jaw.M

Many others enjoyed playing cards while relaxing and listening
to music. The men aboard the Cymric set up a daily sweepstakes on
the run of the ship, a point of pride for J. P. Sturrock: "Thomas
Atkins dearly loves a gamble, and the men of the I.Y. were no excep-
tion to this rule."64 According to Lt. C. S. Awdry, First (Wiltshire)
Company Imperial Yeomanry, there was also cockfighting aboard
the Cymric.6* Drinking and smoking were other ways to pass the
time. Sturrock reported that three thousand bottles of beer were
consumed daily aboard the Cymric.66

Food provided another welcome diversion. There were the stan-
dard rations that few wrote home about: porridge, meat hash, or salt
ling, with bread, butter, and tea at breakfast; soup, meat, potatoes,
apples, and oranges at dinner; and tea, bread, butter, and jam at tea. '
But there were also treats. Along with field glasses and Bibles, indi-
viduals and local groups had donated food items such as cakes and
chocolates. And then there was the food picked up along the way.
William Grant wrote in his diary that he and the men aboard the
Tagus were served red herring and curried rice for breakfast just after
crossing the equator.68
Although the extended sea voyage, with its unchanging scenery
could be monotonous, there were moments of excitement when the

92                    VOLUNTEERS ON THE VELD

sea came alive. William Grant was awed by the sight of schools of
sharks and flying fish.69 From aboard the SS Canada. Frank Charge
wrote to his father: "A school of porpoises were about and it was
amusing to see them jump out of the sea just like steeple chasing
and the pace they went at was about 17 miles an hour. Also we saw
hawks wheeling around the ship all day. At night it was grand, the
phosphorus in the sea, which commences about here, and which we
see right through the tropics, was a brilliant sight, the sea being lit
up with starry lights all round the ship, especially at the cut-water
where it was nothing but a blaze of light."70
Transport ships bound for South Africa stopped for supplies at
one of four islands: Madeira, St. Vincent (Sao Vicente), Grand Canary
Island, and Tenerife. Except for the unlucky ones who stopped at St.
Vincent, "a most wretched place," this brief respite from the journey
was something to write home about.71 For many volunteers, this was
the first time they laid eyes on foreign soil.72 Tenerife was described
in splendor by many awestruck observers. As Stanley Pitt wrote to
his mother, "I should not think there is such a pretty place in the
world."71 In a letter to his mother, H. R. Lister wrote, "I shall never
forget seeing the sun rise that morning and its effect on the snow
on the Peak."74 And Lt. Bernard Moeller wrote in his diary: "At
6 o'clock ... I saw one of the most beautiful spectacles I have ever
witnessed in all my life. Fifteen miles away, on the port side, rose a
magnificent mountain, 15,000 feet high, out of the water; the top
was a rosy pink with the reflection of the rising sun; the sea beneath
was deep blues. This was Teneriffe \sic\. I sat down and thought to
myself what a beautiful world it all is!"75
From aboard the SS Carthaginian. John Paterson wrote of Grand
Canary Island:

This is the prettiest place I have yet seen. In the distance it
just looked like the Isle of Arran on a large scale, but when
we approached it we saw the difference. The islands look
rather barren, the soil is a reddish brown with almost an
entire absence of grass on it, but the trees are lovely. Every
suitable patch seems to be cultivated and planted with date
palms, oranges, bananas and other fruit trees. It seems to be
a place of small holdings for all the hillsides are dotted all
over with little gay coloured houses with Hat roofs. The

                 THE JOURNEY TO SOUTH AFRICA                   93
town itself (Las Palmas] looks beautiful from the sea. There
is a fine bay and the town is filled all round it and rises in
terraces on the hillsides. The houses are all painted in bright
colours, and the gardens planted with trees, with deep glossy
green foliage. The sky is a deep blue, and the bright sunshine
on the sparkling waters of the bay, with the growing moun-
tains for a background makes a picture once seen will not
readily be forgotten/6

While going ashore was typically reserved for the officers, there
was plenty to watch from the deck as "small fleet|s] of rowing boats
laden with fruit... and cigars" swarmed the arriving ships.'7 Young,
"nearly naked boys" dove for pennies and sold oranges and bananas
at prices the men could not resist.7" "I never tasted such good stuff
before," wrote |ohn Paterson to his brother.79 Those men who were
lucky enough to go ashore could explore the town, buy liquor, and
obtain information on the course of the war or discover who was
playing in the English Cup final. At Las Palmas an Oxfordshire yeo-
man obtained a monkey and gave it as a mascot to a Volunteer
artillery battery attached to the CIV. The monkey managed to sur-
vive the war and was later donated to a Zoo in London."0

If the brief stop at an island paradise was the high point of the
journey to South Africa, the low point was the first casualty. Many
units lost a man or two during these three short weeks, usually due
to pneumonia, heart disease, or unidentified fevers. A few men
drowned, and there was at least one reported stabbing."1 Of course,
many of the ships carried horses, and on these vessels, death was
much more common. The large number of horse fatalities made
some question the wisdom of the military authority. Loss of life was
a harbinger of things to come, but it also strengthened the bonds of
camaraderie among tne survivors.
During the late 1890s, Dr. Almroth Wright, professor of pathol-
ogy at the Army Medical School in Netley, developed an anti-typhoid
immunization. Its first large-scale use was on soldiers bound for
South Africa.82 The inoculation was voluntary, and the doctors
themselves did not wholeheartedly endorse it. "At present it is
impossible to say what is the real value of this procedure," reported
Maj. Charles Stonham, the commanding officer and chief surgeon of
the Imperial Yeomanry Field Hospital.** When the principle medical

94                VOLUNTEERS ON THE VELD

officer aboard the Canada recommended against it, few men chose to
be inoculated.84 In February 1900 there was not enough vaccine to go
around for all seven Volunteer Service Companies aboard the Greek.
Those who missed out were promised the vaccine when they landed
at Cape Town, but as it turned out, the men were ordered out of town
before the vaccine arrived.KS Frederick Barnado was a medical stu-
dent when the war began. Attracted by the "call to adventure," he
joined the Twentieth (Fife and Forfar) Company Imperial Yeomanry
after Black Week. Aboard the Cymric, he assisted the medical officer
in inoculating his company. Ironically, he forgot to inoculate himself
and was later sent home with enteric (typhoid) fever.8*
The inoculation, or "pig-sticking drill," was a painful experience:
"Everyone survived but barely.""7 The vaccine was injected just
below the belt, and cocaine was used to dull the pain.88 Afterward the
men were ordered to walk on the deck for an hour and then lie down
and wait. Two or three hours later, high temperature, shivering,
headache, and general fatigue usually set in. When Tom Fowler, First
(Wiltshire) Company Imperial Yeomanry, managed to make it to
breakfast the next morning, he surprised the doctor.89 Most men
needed several days to recuperate.
Even with the diversions, shipboard life was monotonous. Yet it
was a very informative and important experience for the men. They
got to spend time with one another out of the spotlight of the local
media and away from their homes and families. They also got to
laugh, drink, and even mourn for lost comrades with the officers who
would soon lead them into battle. By the time they landed, accents,
age, and social standing did not have the same meaning they once
had. The men had come together and formed bonds that would prove
vital on the battlefield and would sustain many throughout the long
As the volunteers approached their destination, the traffic in the
shipping lanes increased.90 News was passed from one ship to the
next: some learned of Kimberley's relief, some of Gen. Piet Cronje's
surrender at Paardeberg, and some of a friend's death. The activity in
Cape Town harbor and the chaos of the dock often meant a delay in
disembarking of a day or more. The volunteers bound for Port Eliza-
beth and Durban could only watch the activities of others and pon-
der what was awaiting them.

                 THE JOURNEY TO SOUTH AFRICA                     95

Although the process of turning these civilians into soldiers had
begun, it was not yet fully realized. The men had donned their uni-
forms, drilled and paraded, said farewell to their loved ones, and
experienced camaraderie, hardship, and even loss in transit. But
they had yet to face the enemy. For those debarking in Cape Town,
that last look at the gangplank, before they touched land and joined
the milling soldiers and African laborers, was an experience few
would forget. All sorts of feelings raced through them. It was a
moment of uncertainty and anxiety but also of pride and sense of
purpose. As one volunteer put it, "I never felt better in my life than
now but I should like a drink of ale — I would give a good bit for a
pint."91 The volunteers had arrived in South Africa.
 . . . .

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