The Regiments In The South African War 1899-1902
By John Downham
A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History
THE DEFENCE AND RELIEF OF KIMBERLEY
Kimberley Besieged. Prior to the outbreak of war with the Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment was at Cape Town, part of the small peacetime garrison of Cape Colony. On 18 September 1899 one wing (half) of the Battalion was despatched north to defend the diamond town of Kimberley, vulnerably situated on the border with the Orange Free State. The Loyals Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kekewich, was appointed to command the garrison. On 11 October the Boer republics declared war, invading Cape Colony and Natal, and within days Kimberley was besieged. Throughout the four-month siege which followed the Loyal North Lancashires, the only regular infantry in the town, provided the backbone of the defence. Kekewich raised and trained local volunteer units and made skilful use of scarce resources to keep the Boers at bay and feed the townspeople while contending with the at times baneful influence of Cecil Rhodes.
Dronfield Many sorties were mounted by the Kimberley Garrison, usually involving the mounted troops supported by companies of the Loyal North Lancashire. The first notable engagement was at Dronfield on 24 October when two companies of the Battalion made a spirited charge to drive off a Boer commando.
Carter’s Ridge On 25 November Kekewich mounted a successful sortie to the south-east, where the Boers were establishing positions on Carter’s Ridge. This raid was repeated on 28 November, but with less happy results when some of the mounted troops launched an almost suicidal assault on the Boer redoubts. Elements of the Loyal North Lancashires were drawn into this attack which cost the garrison of Kimberley 22 dead and some 32 wounded.
Graspan Meanwhile the other wing of the Battalion, advancing from the Orange River, was engaged in the relief operation under Lord Methuen. On 25 November they were in action at Graspan, where they were part of the force which attacked and captured the kopje (hill) which was the key to the Boer position.
Modder River At the hard-fought battle of Modder River, 28 November, the Loyal North Lancashires were on the left flank and, after a two-hour firefight, they were the first troops to wade waist-deep across the river in an audacious move that turned the Boer flank. Unfortunately the advance was then halted by the British defeat at Magersfontein, 11 December, in which the Regiment was not involved, and further progress could not be made until reinforcements arrived from Britain. Consequently it was not until 15 February 1900 that Kimberley was relieved by French’s Cavalry Division.
THE RELIEF OF LADYSMITH
Ordered South The 1st South Lancashires left Fulwood Barracks, Preston on 30 November 1899 and in January 1900 they joined Sir Redvers Buller’s army in Natal. Buller was attempting to force his way across the Tugela River and the rugged heights beyond it to relieve a British force trapped in the town of Ladysmith. He had already been repulsed once, at Colenso on 15 December, and the besieged troops were in desperate straits.
Across the Tugela Buller’s next move towards Ladysmith was an outflanking left hook across the Tugela at Trichardt’s Drift and through the Tabanyama Hills, but the plan miscarried due to tardy and confused execution. The South Lancashires crossed the river on 17 January and, after two days protecting the bridgehead, captured the lower slopes of the Tabanyama in a silent night attack. The main body remained in that area, in close defence of forward gun positions, for the next six days as repeated attempts were made to break through the hills.
Spion Kop On the night of 23/24 January two companies of the South Lancashires marched with a force of some two thousand men to seize the dominating Spion Kop feature. Unfortunately dawn revealed that the shallow British trenches on the bare rocky summit were ill-sited and enfiladed by Boer riflemen and, as enemy artillery pounded the position, casualties mounted. Amidst the carnage and confusion of that bloody day, and despite the loss of 41 men, the two South Lancashire companies held their positions until ordered to withdraw after dark. Two days later the Battalion was rearguard as Buller re-crossed the Tugela.
Vaal Krantz Buller’s next offensive was at Vaal Krantz where, on 5th February, the South Lancashires executed an exemplary feint attack with, as a result of their steady discipline, minimal casualties. The main assault, however, failed again.
The Tugela Heights Buller determined to make a final all-out attempt to relieve Ladysmith. The Boers were entrenched on the hills on both sides of the Tugela and, once their successive positions to the south of the river had been methodically reduced, the South Lancashires crossed it to start the progressive clearance of the north side. On 22 February the Battalion captured Green Hill and held it under heavy fire and enemy counter-attacks for two days until relieved. Casualties had been relatively heavy, six officers and 46 men.
Pieters Hill The final phase of Buller’s break-through battle, on 27 February 1900, involved an assault by three brigades on three large hill features – Pieters, Railway and Hart’s. The 11th (Lancashire) Brigade, including the South Lancashires, was allocated the central objective, Railway Hill. Despite well-coordinated artillery support from across the Tugela, the open, steeply terraced approaches to the Boer-occupied heights were extremely hazardous and the attack was in danger of stalling when the South Lancashires were brought forward to assault the main position. At this critical moment Lieutenant Colonel MacCarthy O’Leary ordered a bayonet charge and with his words, ‘Remember, men, the eyes of Lancashire are watching you today’, ringing in their ears the South Lancashires swept over the Boer trenches to gain the day. The Colonel was killed at the moment of victory, as were five of his men, but the way to Ladysmith lay open and the following day the town was relieved.
THE GREAT ADVANCE
Mobilisation By December 1899 it was evident that additional troops would be required in South Africa and over the next few weeks the 3rd (Militia) Battalions of the East, South and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments were all embodied, reservists were recalled and active service companies of the Volunteer Battalions of all three Regiments were formed for service with their respective Regular Battalions. On 19 December the 1st East Lancashires left Jersey, joining Lord Roberts’ army at the Orange River. Roberts, now C-in-C South Africa, had planned a major offensive to take the Boer capitals, Bloemfontein and Pretoria, and finish the war.
Paardeberg The advance began on 11 February and the East Lancashires, after a trying march, took part on the 15th in the capture of Jacobsdal. Their Mounted Infantry Company were also in action that day at Waterval Drift, while on the both they and the Loyal North Lancashire Mounted Infantry were present at the decisive victory of Paardeberg. During the subsequent advance on Bloemfontein the Mounted Infantry were engaged at the battles of Driefontein and Poplar Grove. On 13 March Bloemfontein surrendered.
Karee Siding After a short halt at Bloemfontein the 1st East Lancashires marched north with the 7th Division and, on 29 March, attacked a Boer defensive position at Karee Siding. The Lancashire lads took the Boers’ main position, known afterwards as ‘East Lancashire Hill’, with a gallant charge.
Zand River After a pause for resupply, Roberts resumed his advance north to the Rand, and on 10 May the East Lancashires were in action at the battle of Zand River, capturing the key to the Boer position and beating off a strong counter-attack.
Johannesburg With the East Lancashire and Loyal North Lancashire Mounted Infantry well to the fore, Roberts’ army pressed on to take Johannesburg on 31 May. 1st East Lancashires had marched 126 miles in seven days.
Pretoria and Diamond Hill Then, while the East Lancashires remained to garrison the Rand, the Mounted Infantry companies took part in the capture of the Transvaal capital and the subsequent battle of Diamond Hill, 11-12 June.
Botha’s Pass The South Lancashires, meanwhile, marched with Buller through the rugged Biggarsberg range and shared in his successful operation to turn the Boers out of their formidable Laing’s Nek position. On 8 June they scaled the steep Drakensberg escarpment to win the battle of Botha’s Pass.
Rhenoster River To the west, the Loyal North Lancashires joined the general advance on 14 May, marching from Boshof to Bothaville before turning east to counter raids on Roberts’ lines of communication. On 11 June they came up with Christian De Wet and drove him off at the battle of Rhenoster River.
THE GUERRILLA WAR
Boer Tactics The conflict now assumed a completely different complexion, that of guerrilla warfare. As he advanced, Roberts had attempted to win over the Boers by a policy of conciliation, but it was soon clear that there were irreconcilable elements willing to fight to the bitter end. These evolved an appropriate strategy, aggressive raiding by mobile commandos against the long and vulnerable railway lines of communication and against isolated garrisons, convoys and columns. This activity ranged in scale from sniping, cutting telegraph wires, railway demolitions and ambushes, to offensive operations by two to three thousand men with artillery support. Commandos could be concentrated for operations and then disperse to their homes, hiding their weapons, only to reappear in strength elsewhere. This strategy depended on support from the farmsteads and hamlets which formed a network of Boer supply depots, intelligence agencies and safe houses across the sparsely populated veldt.
British Tactics Roberts could never really accept that the Boer commandos were more than ‘a few marauding’ bands’ to be pursued by mobile columns and punished by burning their farms. Then, in December 1900, Kitchener took over. His strategy, more systematic than Roberts’ reactive farm burnings, was to clear the land in disaffected areas while harrying the enemy with mobile columns. At the same time he had to protect his lines of communication and garrison the larger towns and settlements, which would otherwise have been reoccupied by the Boers. At various times 1st East Lancashires were in garrison at Johannesburg, 1st South Lancashires occupied Vreiheid, four companies of 1st Loyal North Lancashires were besieged in Zeerust and all three Militia battalions were deployed in defence of the railways.
Mounted Infantry An unusual feature of the Boer War, and of its guerrilla phase in particular, was the prominence of mounted troops, including Mounted Infantry. The East, South and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments all provided large numbers of Mounted Infantry, including several complete companies. As the cutting edge of the mobile columns the mounted men saw more than their share of the fighting, and there was never any shortage of volunteers for this dashing role.
Columns Kitchener had some ten times the overall strength of the Boers, but by the time his lines of communication had been secured he had barely more soldiers available for offensive operations than his opponents, perhaps 22,000 to the Boers’ 20,000. In consequence, at local level the game of cat and mouse involved frequent role reversals when the ‘mice’ converged in superior strength to attack convoys and isolated columns. Detachments of the Lancashire Regiments were involved in a number of column actions, including the battle of Hartebeestfontein, when, on 18 February 1901 two companies of the Loyal North Lancashires played a leading part in capturing a strong Boer position. The Mounted Infantry companies were very active at this stage of the war, and the 1st East Lancashire Company in particular took part in many successful engagements.
Blockhouses and Drives As the war entered its second year, Kitchener realised that he had to deny both logistic support and freedom of movement to the Boers. His draconic farm clearances were largely achieving the first of these requirements, and to achieve the second he began a comprehensive programme of blockhouse building to cordon off great tracts of the country. These blockhouses were miniature forts, sited for all-round defence, each with a garrison of an NCO and 6-8 privates. They were linked by barbed-wire fences and erected at intervals of about half to three-quarters of a mile to contain the Boer commandos so that coordinated search and destroy drives could be mounted by mobile columns. The 1st East Lancashires built and manned a blockhouse line near Frankfort, and the Volunteer Company Loyal North Lancashires by the Modder River. By October 1901 this system was proving its worth, but it was not until May 1902 that the surviving Boer leaders accepted that further resistance was useless and surrendered.
VOLUNTEERS & MILITIA
The Boer War was the first conflict in which soldiers of the volunteer units, predecessors of today’s Territorials, served on active service overseas. Hundreds of part-time Lancashire soldiers volunteered for the Active Service Companies which usually joined their respective Regular battalions of the East, South and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments, much as they have done more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Militia battalions of those Regiments were also embodied, but they served in South Africa as complete units.
DRESS AND EQUIPMENT
British soldiers in the Boer War traveled light by modern standards. Their standard uniform was thin khaki drill with long cloth puttees, boots and sun helmet. Apart from rifle, bayonet, ammunition and water bottle, they usually carried an ‘iron’ emergency ration, change of shirt and socks, knife, fork and spoon, a waterproof sheet and a blanket. Greatcoats were carried on company transport, while luxuries might include a comb, razor, pipe and (when available) tobacco.
LIFE ON CAMPAIGN
For the British Infantry, after the first nine months or so of ‘conventional’ warfare, the South African campaign involved many long, dusty marches, or ‘treks’, punctuated by frequent skirmishes and occasional battles, and by periods of guarding the vulnerable railway lines and towns from raiding Boer commandos. The Lancashire lads, on a staple diet of ration biscuit and ‘bully’ beef, bore the scorching African sun and bitterly cold nights with a lively good humour and spirited determination that shines through their letters.
ROLL OF HONOUR
A total of 395 officers and men of our predecessor Regiments died in South Africa, but only 118 of these were killed in action or died of wounds. Nearly all the others died of disease, mostly typhoid or dysentery. In addition 295 were wounded in action. Memorials to our Boer War casualties may be seen both in South Africa and in many Lancashire towns, including Burnley, Preston and Warrington.