by MAJOR L. A. CROOK, SM, JCD
The Editor was Sergeant W. Standford who began the campaign as the Number One of No. 4 gun and returned home as the Sergeant-Major. He transferred to the Cape Town Highlanders in 1891 and eventually became Commanding Officer of that unit.
The pages of “The Wopse” are filled with light-hearted humour, but reading between the lines, one becomes aware of the extreme hardship and often hunger, suffered by the gunners during their five months on the Eastern Border of the Cape Colony. The Tambookie campaign was largely one of seeking out the rebellious tribesmen, and entailed a considerable amount of patrolling with relatively little of the type of action they had expected. It took place over the rainy months of November 1880 to April 1881.
Members of the service detachment of Prince Alfred’s Own Cape Volunteer Artillery had volunteered to serve on the border and, together with a corporal and four gunners attached to them from the Graham’s Town Volunteer Horse Artillery and Commandos from Murraysburg, Graaff Reinet and Alexandria, the Cape Town Engineers and Beaufort West Volunteers, they formed a “Flying Column under Colonel Wavell for the sweeping of Tembuland”. They had sailed from Cape Town in the Donald Currie steamer Florence on November 9 and then travelled by rail from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, whence they had marched via Komgha to Ibeka.
The first issue of “The Wopse” was dated “Komgha on 25 November 1880”, and the Editor apologised for the dearth of news and matter but expected to be flooded with contributions during the weeks to come. “We will not sting more than necessary, and there will be no venom”, reads his first Editorial. “Nothing extenuate, nor set down ought in malice”, he went on, “would be our motto if we hadn’t already chosen a longer one.” And the motto he had chosen was a quotation from Shakespeare “I must have liberty withal, as large a charter as the wind, to blow on whom I please.”
Blow he did, for the pages of “The Wopse” contain a number of comments which appear to indicate a certain amount of incompetence in overall leadership of the “Flying Column” which crawled at a snail’s pace about the Transkei. The last page of the first issue records a dinner given by the sergeants for the officers and, after listing the seemingly excellent menu, it ends, “Not so bad for Komgha. But wait, a time will come!” The time did come later in the campaign when, soaked to the skin, boots in a shocking state of repair, and without tobacco, the ration wagons failed to arrive and the men were reduced to raiding the native pumpkin fields for food!
Old records reveal that the Cape Gunners put in a
considerable number of hours at gun and marching drill each
week and had attained a high standard of proficiency. Vol. I
of “The Wopse” mentions that:
“A gentleman living just off the main road to Komgha, said that we were a fine body of men, and that he was glad the Government had called out the Imperial troops at last.
“To cap the preceding paragraph, the Contractor persists in serving out rations to the Royal Artillery.”
This was indeed praise for the Volunteers when one considers the reputation enjoyed by the disciplined British Regular Army of those days.
Strangely enough, the first issue also contains this paragraph: “Cape Field Artillery kindly invited Officers and men to share their quarters at King William’s Town. As we were comfortably housed in the Ordnance yard, the invitation was not accepted; but the feeling which prompted it will be appreciated by the whole corps.”
The Cape Field Artillery referred to was the permanent unit formed from the C.M.R. by the Cape Government by Act No. 15 of 1880. This unit was, however, disbanded in 1884, but most of the men transferred to the Cape Mounted Riflemen.
Little did the men of Prince Alfred’s Own Cape Volunteer Artillery realise that, many years later, their own unit would bear the proud title of Cape Field Artillery.
The second edition was produced at Ibeka on December 4, and from this we learn that the General had not yet arrived, although he was “expected hourly”. “It is rumoured”, said the notice column, “that the General will be here today, but he has been coming so often that we are almost unbelievers.” It was also in this issue that the unit’s doctor received his nickname. Obviously a Scot, Dr Smartt, who was surgeon to the Battery and would later - as Sir Thomas Smartt - become the Commissioner of Public Works and Leader of the Unionist Party in Parliament, could not pronounce the word “Pills”. He was henceforth known as “Pee-hills”.
Their battery barber was apparently an amateur for we read that “he will die an unnatural death if there were such a thing as a looking-glass in Camp.” Captain Inglesby’s hair is recorded as “looking as if it had been cut by case shot.”
Saturday, December 11, 1880, saw part of the Battery at M’Gwali where the Left Division departed “for the seat of war”, heading into the Bashee Valley. It was there that the Gunners suffered their first and only casualty. Gunner Ratcliffe overblanced whilst diving into the Bashee River and struck his head on the bottom, dislocating his neck. He was buried the following day on a ridge above their Bashee Valley camp, facing the Gquaga Mountain. The seventh edition, dated Saturday, January 1, 1881, at Baziya, records that a cross with inscription was erected over Ratcliffe’s grave, a spot which became known by that name.
Up precipices, down krantzes, over ditches, across rapids, drifts and boulders, the guns were hauled in the quest of the rebellious Tembus, who were never found where they were reported to have been seen. Christmas Day in the Gquaga Valley was “wet and miserable”, with everyone tired and soaked to the skin. Spirits were evidently low for the combined issue No. 5 and 6 includes this verse:
“Once upon a day so dreary,Each issue contained verse and it was evident, from “The Wail of the Fat ‘Un’”, that discipline, although strictly maintained, could be circumvented at times:
As we plodded faint and weary
Armed with many a quaint and curious
Weapon of forgotten corps,
Suddenly I heard a thumping
As of Gun-Wheels fiercely bumping,
Bumping through a drift, before.
‘Something’s gone to smash’, I muttered,
Then a voice before me stuttered,
‘After this, John, never more
Quoth the Gunner, ‘Never more'.”
“Little sweetheart should you catch me,The story was that one of the Gunners, a blacksmith in civilian life, had been caught sitting on a box in front of the guard tent whilst on sentry duty. Captain Jnglesby fined him £2.0.0. Shortly after this, the pintle eye of a gun-carriage was badly twisted but the stout old blacksmith, nicknamed “the Parson”, would not agree to assist in repairing it. “I’m a gunner, not an engineer”, was the explanation. After many amateur efforts at repair had failed, the rather desperate Commanding Officer said that the Parson could charge for the job. In no time at all, the crafty smithy had found a portable forge and put things right. His fee was £2.0.0 to cancel out the fine!
Slumbering on my ‘sentry go’,
Tell me truly, you’ll forgive me,
If I pay two quid you know
But my little bill is pressing,
For the ‘pintail’ fixing tight,
With the trouble I’ve had guessing,
How to make the bolt fit right.
Little sweetheart, come now, pay me,
Only two pounds is my charge,
And considering how I’ve swotted,
Surely this is not too large?
Had I not been so soft-hearted
You should not have got me on
Rather we’d in wrath have parted,
And the pack drill I’d have done.
Future years our lives may sever,
We may never meet again;
But of you my thoughts will never
Anything suggest but pain (payin’).”
Plagued by flies and bush ticks, drenched by rain and tired from continuously manhandling guns and wagons over swollen streams, the 9th issue, edited at Baziya, mentions that “One of the Rangers said that sooner than serve another three months in Tembuland he would ‘do seven years for life’ on the breakwater.” This was a reference to the notorious prison in Cape Town whose inmates were employed in building the breakwater out into Table Bay.
To Baziya, the Gquaga Drift, Emgwali, All Saint’s, Ratcliffe’s Grave, the Bashee Valley, Ceba Mountain, the 10th issue is headed, appropriately, “All over the Shop”. By this time swords had become an unbearable hindrance and were being abandoned in favour of the Tranter revolvers which had been issued at King William’s Town, and of which, in a report after the campaign, Inglesby said that “a short stout stick would have been better!”
This was also the time of “the Long Patrol” when the Gunners, together with the Beaufort West men and Walker’s Rangers, Engineers, Infantry and Cavalry, were sent on five-day patrol, which eventually lasted 14 days without tents and with rations for only five days. Continual thunder storms, wet clothes, guns overturning in the swollen rivers and again hunger. “Scarcity of provisions caused a run upon pumpkin fields, and those useful articles of consumption were dished up in various methods, from pumpkin squash pure and simple during the days of famine, to pumpkin fritters with lime juice sauce in the days of plenty. At one Mess, pumpkin squash would be consumed with pepper and salt, and the next with sugar trimmings.”
Two days before the end of the patrol, a few tents were delivered by the Commissariat and Sgt. Short returned to Cape Town to be married both obvious subjects for much wit in the editorial of Vol. 1, No. 11, written at Ratcliffe’s Grave.
The members of the PAOCVA detachment had volunteered for four months service on the border and at Xuga Camp in early February, with Sergeant Standford confined to bed with fever, Inglesby, now a major, “wired to Cape Town about the intention of the Government with regard to the relief of the Battery.” Their once smart blue uniforms were badly in need of replacement and boots especially required renewal; morale was low. Later in the week all units in the column held meetings on the question of relief. Luckily the Gunners had by then learned that 24 men of the Graham’s Town Horse Artillery under Lieut Siegert and 26 of the Kaffrarian Volunteer Artillery under Lieut Nicholls had been called out to take their place in the field (they would not, however, reach home until April 7) — but the other troops were almost in a state of mutiny. This state of affairs was not to be wondered at, considering:
“Why are the Rangers so weary and sad?Relief was apparently to be effected at Aliwal North; so north from All Saint’s they trekked, reaching Gqogim Hill in mid-February. Many of the wagons made the ascent at night, but the Gunners waited till daylight, taking the guns up with 18 horses each and every man on the drag ropes. The road was strewn with fragments of loads, five of the wagons having overturned, one of them tumbling down the hillside, smashing the lead driver’s skull and all the lime-juice barrels. All the guns were at the top by 3 p.m. and “The Wopse” of February 19, records the pleasure of all ranks at having at last got away from the sand, flies and mosquitoes of the Bashee Valley!
Why do they gather in tiny groups?
Why have they ceased to be joyous and glad?
What is the matter with all the troops?
Well, they’ve been footsore and worn out their boots,
And they’ve not even a pair of socks.
All now they require is of clothes two suits
And soles to guard ‘gainst the pointed rocks.”
Through the Pauw Valley to a place bearing a name to which Mzwazwa was the nearest approach the Editor could make; then Barkly Pass through which they moved without accident — apart from the ammunition wagon overturning and spewing forth spare shot and shell which men of Nesbitt’s Horse helped to reload. On February 23, the Gunners camped about 15 miles from Barkly and for two days they experienced “unsettled weather, varying from intermittent thunderstorms to a downright heavy rain of many hours duration.” Despite the weather, it was a luxury getting back into the regions of bread, milk and butter once more. Prices of these commodities varied considerably, however, for Vol. I, No. 15, written at the Long Kloof River records that one man charged them three shillings for a pound of butter, while another asked only one shilling. Bread cost between two and three shillings a loaf and milk sixpence a pint.
Owing to the rains, the Long Kloof river could not b crossed and, on February 28, a fine but cloudy day, “the great excitement was a football match, played with a considerable amount of energy.” By the next day the river had dropped sufficiently to allow the Column to cross and the rest of Wavell’s Flying Column (by now referred to as the “Phantom Column” or “The Ghostly Troops of Wandering Wavell”) passed the camp of the Gunners who were left to bring up the rear. The drifts were reduced to a chaos of mud and the ammunition wagon stuck several times, although the mule wagons went through without much trouble and the guns “splendidly”. In all, they made 21 crossings of the river on their way up the Kloof between 9 a.m. and sunset.
Passing through Barkly on March 4, they reached the banks of the Kraai River where they waited for eight days before the river went down sufficiently for the Column to cross. In water only waist deep but “running with a fearful current”, the crossing was at last made. The lead horse of Number One Gun was washed off its feet and, only by prompt action of the Sergeants, were the traces and reins loosened and the horse saved from drowning. The other guns went through safely enough, although Corporal Bayly disappeared downstream, to be rescued by a Ranger, and Sergeant Standford was washed off the drift but saved himself by clinging to a rock until he could clamber out.
During the week of waiting to cross the river, members of the Column could not be restrained from visiting the hotel, one of the three principal buildings of which the five-year-old village boasted. As “The Wopse” states: “The was a great deal of bolting and kicking over the traces. Some, who were not used to it, got blown after a short canter, but some thorough-going old hacks went in at neck-or-nothing pace.
“It was a sight to see the incurables coming home to camp and dropping by the roadside. Our Scotch cart was sent out twice to bring in loads, and a wagon went in Barkly and brought in 47 whose legs were very drunk.
“Upon asking why a fatigue party could not be furnished by another corps, the remarkable answer was elicited that no other men could be trusted to go to the village, so the Artillery ‘Drunk Fatigue’ went in and gathered up the fragments of fallen humanity and brought them to camp. All houses and shops were open to the Gunners but closed to others. Even the Drunkists took us under their protection.”
On the Column marched, at a rate of about five miles per day; via Rebels Kloof and Clearwater, drenched with rain and shivering in unexpected cold. By March 25, they had “got well round the corner of the mountain we had been watching for weeks”, and on the following day camped near Herschel, where they handed over two of their 7-pr guns to the Graham’s Town Horse Artillery.
Here the story ends, for the last of the weekly editions was produced at Cape Town on April 9 and deals with the rest of their journey in but a few lines — “arrived in Jamestown March 29; Penhoek, March 30; Klapperfontein, March 31 reached Queenstown, April 1; left East London, April 4; reached Cape Town, April 7; stodged at banquet, April 9.
“The Wopse” is truly a remarkable record of an almost forgotten campaign.
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