Escape from Waterval - 22 April - 4 May 1900
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(John) Milverton Ford was from Sydney, where he had served in the New South Wales Lancers. He was working in South Africa and in early November 1899 found himself in Cape Town when members of his Regiment landed from the UK. He was given permission to join the contingent.
At 03:00 near Slingersfontein, a few kilometres south of Colesberg on 16 January 1900 a troop of about 20 mixed New South Wales Lancers and 1st Australian Horse under Lieutenant Dowling of the latter, set out on patrol. They were engaged by a larger party of Boers. It appears all the Australian’s horses were soon shot or captured in the first few minutes, then each man built a stone krantz around him, and fought until every cartridge was expended. The Boers then rushed them and as the cavalry carried no bayonets, little resistance was possible. TSM Griffin and CPL Kilpatrick died. Lieutenant Dowling lost an eye and was captured. The following Lancers were taken to Pretoria as prisoners: WO Fisher (SHQ), Sgt McDonald, Tptr Taylor, Cpl Hopf, Tprs Daley (all of the Northern Rivers); Doudney (Parramatta), Johnston (Sydney), Roberts (Singleton), M. Ford and G. Whittington (both of Sydney). This is story of Trooper Milverton Ford:-
"From the time that we reached the Waterval prison camp reports continued to reach us giving hope that we might be released at any time. On that account many of us refrained from attempting to escape. At length three months had passed, and within the last few days about 800 more prisoners had arrived, some from Sanna’s Post and some from Thaba’nchu, along with the news was things were at a standstill.
I determined to do a Churchill for it, and chose as my comrades in the venture a sergeant of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who had seen service in India and Omdurman, and George (Dick) Whittington, a fellow New South Wales Lancer who had been through two native campaigns in south Africa. We procured at the cost of a few pounds, some old civilian suits, 2 haversacks each containing biscuits and a few tins of bully beef, enough we reckoned to last us three weeks, at the rate of 1½ biscuits and ¼ (tin) of bully beef per diem. Added to this we each took a water bottle and a clasp knife, and for general use we carried amongst us some tobacco, matches, two tins of condensed milk, tea, and a tin for boiling water, small piece of soap, half a towel, and small housewife, containing needles and thread, mixed pills, and quinine, as we had to pass through fever country (some of these who had attempted to escape before us contracted fever, and gave themselves up soon afterwards, returning to camp only to die), two small compass appendages, and a copy of a war map of the country I had carefully made up in sections to the scale of 25 miles to an inch (1:1,584,000) in a notebook. We could not manage blankets, but trusted to walking at night to escape the cold, owing to many escapees being recaptured on the railway we determined to strike east across the veldt, and avoid it altogether until we reached the neighbourhood of Waterval Bowen, and from thence to follow the Crocodile River to Portuguese territory.
All being ready and having the advantage of darkness until the moon rose about 01:00, we hid ourselves on Sunday 22 April 1900, in a hole specially dug out for that purpose in the prisoners’ exercise paddock and provided with small ventilation holes to the surface. It took a fortnight’s hard work to excavate it, the soil had to be carried away from this spot in small quantities at a time, and the hole covered up at night. There was a small hole only to creep in by and just room for us to lie side by side, and we had about 16 Centimetres clear above our heads. At 16:00 one of our comrades covered over the entrance to our excavation with boards, placed a towel upon them, covered the whole with sand, concealing it so cleverly that noone without previous knowledge would ever have suspected its existence. At 16.30 the guards appeared in the paddock, and at 17:00 commenced to turn the prisoners back into the compound. When the paddock was apparently cleared by the mounted men the guards on foot advanced very slowly across the paddock in an extended line at about five paces interval, searching as they went and tapping the ground with sticks. Thankfully, they walked over the top of the hole without detecting it. It seemed a life time whilst they were passing, at one point they halted about twelve metres away, and we could hear them probing a suspicious looking springhare burrow for some time. Eventually all was quiet, and we listened for the signal our comrades were to give us
We had arranged for three Gs to be sounded on the cornet when all was clear, and if there was danger ahead the regimental call of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. For half an hour life was bearable in the hole, but after that we were in agony, almost choking for want of breath, the size of the hole being 1.5 wide 1.7 long 0.5 metres high. Our mouths were opened to the fullest extent, our breath was coming in convulsive gasps; the perspiration was pouring down our backs in streams. However, just as it seemed we must succumb about 18:00 the cornet sounded three Gs, and we burst open the door of our prison, cleared the air holes and a flood of deliciously cool air poured through immediately reviving us. We lay quiet for some while, and scraped the soil from our faces and matted hair.
The night being still, and stars shining, we could hear our comrades singing hymns (we had church every evening) in one corner of the compound, the rendering of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ being distinctly heard, whilst from the other end the cries of the penny gambling fraternity sounded clear and sharp. The houseman’s ‘Come on my lucky lads. Who says another card?’ and the Crown and Anchor boardman’s ‘Back them up my beauties, where you like and where you fancy.’ After a while we crept out from the hole, and lay flat on the ground listening. We had need of all our nerve as soon afterwards a guard left his post and walked down the paddock, stopping within 20 metres of us and listening for a minute or two before returning to it. At 19:00 we collected our kit together and crawled on our hands and knees to the wire entanglement, through which we made our way, after 10 minutes of struggling which caused much damage to our clothes. We then had to make our way through a mealie patch, between two farm houses, across a swamp, and over a river, all within a distance of about 600 metres. Until well away from the vicinity of the camp we advanced about 20 paces only at a time, and then lay down and listened for a few minutes to make sure we were not running into danger. At this rate it took us four hours to cross the railway at a point about three kilometres north of Waterval camp, we had needed to cross two ugly swamps and come through a nest of farms. Once clear of the railway line we halted for half an hour, becoming aware of the presence of some four centuries on outpost duty by their indiscreet fires at no great distance from us.
Having reached open country with few farms to trouble us we pushed rapidly on, and in another hour the brilliantly lit prisoner’s camp faded from view behind a hill. We waved our hats in exaltation and before daylight had crossed the Pinaar River and reached some bushveld, 11 kilometres east of it.
On Monday, 23 April 1900, we hid all day in some bushes, one watching whilst the others slept, seeing numerous patrols pass without detecting us. As soon as it was dark we resumed our march, remaining in the bushveldt all night, passing over a terribly rough kopje and some broken ground. We crossed a river by wading through a rapid, and soon became so entangled amongst the mealie crops and farms that we began to fear we should not extricate ourselves from the dangerous vicinity by morning. We could not rest, as dogs were barking at us and farmhouses seem to spring up everywhere. At about 04:00 we reached good shelter bushy trees and high grass, and there we camped lighting a fire which we extinguished before daybreak, as we were shivering with cold, and could hear the loud purring of some wild animal (a leopard, we thought).
On Tuesday, 24 April 1900, we had a quiet day, saw no one, and resumed our march about 15:00, halting at 17:00, as the bushveldt gave out. We narrowly missed being seen by two Boers, who were passing down a road we had to cross, and had to lie down on the grass for 10 minutes. At 1900 we resumed our march, crossing several streams and getting again in the very rough bush country. We kept falling over stones and dead timber, and at 24:00 decided that it would be better to camp for the night and whilst in that class of country to travel as much as possible during the day time. We obtained a good cover, with a fire and camped until daylight on Wednesday the 25 April 1900. At dawn we cut ourselves some stout sticks and pushed on. Soon we came to a broad, flat valley, open with the exception of a few clumps of trees, and dotted all over with farms and Kaffir huts. We watched our opportunity and made our way through with the utmost caution, from clump, getting sometimes perilously near to habitations and Kaffirs, until we again reached timber. Here I sank down almost exhausted near some fine specimens of quartz; but the sergeant and Whittington each easing my load by taking a haversack apiece, I was unable to go on. The country was now a succession of steep rocky spurs, over which we climbed wearily. A bath in a stream revived this and we walked on until it was quite dark when we struck some fine bushes in a depression. I lay down, worn out and fell asleep within a few seconds. Later on in the night when it was judged all Boers and Kaffirs would be asleep my two comrades lit a fire, I was awakened by Whittington about 02:00 to extinguish the sleeve of my coat it was on fire.
I woke at 07:00 on Thursday 26, feeling much refreshed by my long heavy sleep, and fit for a day's walking. We immediately started, but had to make why detours to avoid farms. Whilst crossing an open hill we suddenly came upon a Kaffir driving cattle. We dropped in the long grass before he saw us and he passed close by. Soon after having to make a wide detour to avoid a large farm the sergeant told as he would go no further with us, he considered we would never get out of the difficult country and and decided he would make at once for the. We divided up our stores equally, the sergeant taking the biggest compass. Parting as friends we shook hands and wished each other success. That was the last we saw him. He struck south and should have hit the railway near Bronkhurst Spruit, the scene of the cold-blooded murder in the last war of many Britishers, in a couple of days at the most according to our calculations.
My comrades and I walked until 15:30, when we discovered two large Kaffir huts and some cattle kraals in an isolated position a long way from the nearest habitation. We decided to visit them, get a good nights rest, have a couple of substantial meals by this time mealie pap would be an luxury, replenish our larder and leave before daylight giving the Kaffirs is a wrong idea of our direction and making them think we were prospectors.
We lay up until dark, and then went towards the huts; but to our inexpressible disgust there were no fires burning, no barking of dogs or chatter such as greets you from the children round a Kaffir kraal at night. The grass about was tall and rank and at last it forced itself on our unwilling minds, the place was deserted. On our arrival we found out such was the case and the castles we had been building in the air were dashed to the ground. We recovered from the shock, lit a fire and made half a pannikin of tea apiece, ate half a biscuit, then lay down outside and went to sleep. All night long the hyenas and the Jackals howl from the hills around us, as they did every subsequent night until we reached the railway. That night was terribly cold waking up I found Whittington's coat and trousers were on fire, I rolled him over and was able to extinguish the flames with no damage to my comrade.
On Friday, 27 April 1900 we started at daylight, walking all day through very mountainous country intersected by tributaries of rivers without seeing any farms. We were sunning ourselves at 09:00 on Sunday the 29 April 1900; ruefully contemplating our boots, which though sound when we left, now had almost worn out (in fact my toes were completely exposed), when crack whet a rifle at no great distance followed by another sounding closer than the first. It became evident that someone was shooting baboons, whose barks we had frequently heard around us, we hurriedly decamped making up a narrow kloof thinking they might take us for baboons and have a shot at us. We found the kloof to have been recently fired, and tried to go through it by walking straight ahead, but a high wind was blowing in our faces and we had to turn and clamber up a cliff, on top of which we found shelter and safety although the heat and smoke all day were very unpleasant. At night we advanced over some awful country. We kept falling over stones, ant heaps and down ant bear holes but we held on and after clambering down a rocky kopje discovered ourselves almost on top of a farm outhouse with a dog barking at us. We lay low, someone came out and quieted the dog, which fortunately for us was not aggressive. We then took the first opportunity of retreating and made a wide circuit, coming an hour later to a mealie patch. We were busily engaged, as we had been on several previous occasions in tapping water melons of which none were ever to be found ripe and did not heed the barking of dogs when suddenly a Boer voice shouted and almost immediately the report of a gun was followed by the whistle the bullet close by. Exhaustion and everything else were forgotten and we put a good distance between ourselves and the mealie patch before we ventured to stop. When we did pause for breath my comrade’s chagrin was a caution to witness. He only then discovered that he had left the haversack behind containing all our tobacco, matches, soap, towel, diary, tea dish and medicines. We walked on till daylight and then lay down in a hole the thickly grassed veldt, so well hidden that a man might have passed within a few metres and not have seen us.
On Monday the 30 April 1900 we lay resting all day with no shelter from the broiling sun, our clothes full of grass seeds and ourselves harassed by clouds of mosquitoes and put out of temper by the loss of our luxuries and Whittington's diary which if found we felt sure would lead to our recapture. Making through some rough country we struck a tributary of the Crocodile River and followed it down, camping close to it. On Wednesday, the 2 May 1900, we followed it off and on all day and all that night. I had cut that portion of my boot off which protects my ankle and fastened it by means of a bootlace over the toe, otherwise I could not have gone on as the country was a mass of stones.
On Thursday the 3rd, we came in sight of Waterval Boven and after resting for some hours we made our way down a difficult and steep slope and thoroughly exhausted, lay in sight of Waterval Onder railway station. Here we decided that our only way of escaping lay in boarding a goods train bound for Delagoa Bay, as our boots were worn out, our food would only last three days and our feet were too painful to walk much further. Our hope had been to find a Kaffir’s kraal on and after squaring the Kaffirs, to lie up for a few days, replenish our stores and get some more boots or veldtschosen; but we did not find a kraal. We waited until late that night before attempting to board a goods train which arrived about 20:00 and remained there for the night.
On Friday 4 May 1900, we crept alongside the line of trucks and seeing one containing wool bales marked in chalk in large letters ‘Lourenco Marques’ we lost no time in wriggling underneath the tarpaulin and secreting ourselves as well is possible amongst the bales. It was some hours before we got away, travelling was very slow and monotonous the train sometimes stopping for hours and shunting. We repeatedly wanted to cough at awkward moments and what we suffered in trying to stifle it can be better imagined than described. Late that night we stopped at the Komarti Poort as we now know; early the next morning the Boer officials commenced to search the train. At length they came to our truck. We first heard the ropes being untied then two Kaffirs mounted on top of the wool bales and pulled the tarpaulin up on both sides. We felt certain we would be discovered, when they assured one of the officials that no one was there and replaced the tarpaulin which they had actually piled right on top of us.
We were then able to breathe more freely but after the train moved off, being unable to look out, we were uncertain until midday whether we were in Portuguese territory or not. By 17:00 we reached Lourenco Marques (now Maputo in Mozambique) and like a pair of deadbeat tramps, as soon as the train stopped crawled out and dropped between two trucks and made up the line without looking round (there were plenty of people present) and walked into the town. We seemed to be treading on air and everything looked dizzy around and we experienced buzzing in our ears. We made straight for a kiosk standing at a corner and had a glass of beer apiece the Barman stared so hard at us that we told him who we were and he refused to take payment for the drinks and immediately called his wife and introduced us to her. He advised us to go it once to see the British Consul, which we did. We had to walk however as no rickshaw boy could be found who would undertake to carry such disreputable at fares.
The Consul (Captain Fritz Crow) accepted our story, congratulated us on being the first prisoners who had succeeded out of the many who had attempted to escape from Waterval camp, gave us an order for an outfitter and another for a hotel and then sent his Portuguese clerk down with us to see that we were properly provided for. On reaching a hotel we found quite a number of British subjects there, who informed us that owing to the explosion of Begbie's iron foundry, they had been put over the border from Johannesburg. I asked after an old friend of mine who was watching the interest of his company up there and was informed that he might be put over the border at any time. Happening to turn around at the moment, I saw the very person we were talking about pass through the room. I jumped up and caught him by the sleeve. He looked vacantly at me for a moment and then his face lit up. He held out his hand, saying ‘Ford, old man you are looking dreadful; what's the matter?’ Then followed explanations, which were listened to with the greatest of interest; and then, amongst friends our troubles were forgotten. The following week was the most enjoyable we ever spent, and the relish we had for our food was simply indescribable.” Milverton Ford [The Sydney Mail Saturday 30 June 1900]
The other prisoners, all fearfully thin and weak were liberated on 10 June 1900 when in a hazardous operation a force including two troops of New South Wales Lancers stormed the camp. Trooper Ford served until Lancer Squadron returned to Australia.
Transcription of Trooper Ford’s article published The Sydney Mail Saturday 30 June 1900 was by David Deasy. Editing and context notes by John Howells using information from the late Colonel Vernon’s history of the Royal NSW Lancers 1885-1985 published by that Regiment’s Centenary Committee in 1985.
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