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THE BATTLE OF BIDDULPH'S BERG


So soon as General Rundle entered Senekal-on the 26th of May, he proceeded to make inquiries as to the whereabouts of General Colvile, whom he believed to be at  Lindley, some forty miles north-east of him. It so happened that General Colvile had just vacated that place and continued his march in the direction of Heilbron. No sooner was his back turned than the Boers pounced on Lindley, and  not only pounced, but contrived to make themselves instantly aggressive. As ill luck would have it, the Duke of Cambridge's Yeomanry under Colonel Spragge, who had been sent from Kroonstad to join General Colvile's force, were  caught by the enemy a few miles short of their destination.

They were in the awkward position of having missed General Colvile and lost a pied-a'-terre at Lindley.

In this dilemma a message was sent to General Rundle informing him of the desperate quandary.

The General, instantly reviewing the critical state of affairs, devised a strategical plan which, he thought, would serve - far off as  he was-to extricate the entangled forces who were demanding his assistance. He was aware that a posse of Boers was within some six miles of him, circling around towards Bethlehem in the east, and he conceived the scheme of  attacking these with such force and determination as to press them hard and force them in their turn to appeal for help from the hordes that were infesting Lindley to the annoyance and dismay of the not yet united British forces  who had prayed his aid. This device was masterly in the extreme, as it, so to speak, forced the masses of the enemy to come south in all haste, and thus saved risks of failure which might have resulted from a long movement of  infantry over a distance of about forty miles. So, leaving General Boyes with three battalions in occupation of Senekal, General Rundle, with a force consisting of 2nd Grenadier Guards, 2nd Scots Guards, 2nd East Yorkshire, under  General Campbell, the 2nd West Kent Regiment, the 2nd and 79th Batteries Royal Field Artillery, and the 4th and 7th Battalions of Imperial Yeomanry-marched off towards the east over some miles of open country over which the tall  grass, bleached now by many days of scorching sun, waved thickly round their knees. In the distance were three ominous hills-such hills as the Dutchmen delight in-fronted by a lower eminence which was occupied by the enemy. These  espied the coining of the British, and promptly betook themselves to their main position on two of the hills, Biddulph's Berg and Tafel Berg. From these points of vantage they greeted the Kent and Derbyshire Yeomanry, who had  advanced to reconnoitre, with a storm of bullets which at once laid low many a brave fellow. Still the Derbyshire Yeomanry pursued their way, worked round the hill and dismounted and proceeded to seek cover, where they were forced  to remain till dark set in, unable to stir lest the volleys of the enemy should find them out. On the western side the Kent Yeomanry were hotly attacked, and many were wounded. Meanwhile, from the foremost hill, whence the Boers  had spied out the coming' of Rundle's force, the British now in possession, commenced to fire upon the heights of the Bidduiph's Berg; the artillery too dropped shells in the direction of the enemy; and the sun went down on the  hostile forces, fighting vigorously so long as a ray of daylight served to illumine the deadly operations. Then they bivouacked where they were. At dawn the battle was resumed, and an effort was made to turn the enemy's right  flank. The Grenadiers under Colonel Lloyd moved off to the west, supported by the Scots Guards, West Kent, and Imperial Yeomanry, marching over miles of hard dried grass till within range of the Boers' lair. But as usual the foe  was invisible. It was imagined that he had vacated the position in the night; but to be on the safe side a cascade of shrapnel was poured over the steeps. Even this brusque process of search was unavailing. Not a sign of life was  visible, though wounded Dutchmen must have lain in their hiding-places with stoical calm. And now commenced the dangerous, the awe-striking feature of the day. The grass, dried to chip, suddenly burst into a blaze. The carelessness  of some one had set it alight, and presently the gallant Grenadiers found themselves fanned with the heat of an oven and forced to move from their position. They were now ordered to face the Boer hiding-place and attack it, while  the 79th Battery behind them prepared again to scour the hill. Then, following their usual tactics, the Boer guns burst forth with loud and startling uproar, surprising the troops, who had almost accepted the idea that the enemy  had fled. There was no doubt that he was "all there," with tw9 guns and a "pom-pom," and meant to make himself objectionable. Just as the Boer shell was dispersing the amazed Yeomanry (who but a few moments  before had been preparing the pipe of peace in full security of the Dutchmen's supposed evacuation), the grass again broke into flame, growing and leaping by bounds, so that the best efforts to stay its progress were unavailing.  Still, the artillery duel, once commenced, continued briskly, briskly as the veldt fire below, that, sweeping round the wounded as they fell, made a new and awful panorama in the sufficiently horrific scene of war. The British  gunners worked their hardest to silence the Boer gun, and as they proceeded, the great furnace of roaring, crackling grass gathered and grew, and the volumes of smoke soon rendered the Boer position invisible. During this time not  a sound of musketry had been heard, only the Boer gun had given tongue vociferously enough to tax all the energies of the British gunners to silence it. Then came the order for the Grenadiers to advance, and this, in spite of smoke  and the violent efforts of the Boer artillery, they did in right soldierly fashion, making for the direction of the offensive weapon with splendid coolness and precision. But no sooner had they neared to within some hundred yards  of the piece than they suddenly found themselves pelted at by the hitherto inactive rifles of the foe. Thick and fast buzzed the bullets of the Dutchmen, loud roared the guns as the shells burst and bellowed. One man after another  dropped - was killed / maimed, mutilated - and there, invisible, lay as he fell, a prey in his helplessness to the devouring flames that were now leaping cind crackling with an almost majestical vehemence, rushing far and wide,  like some vast, ravening, raging demon, with a thousand fiery tongues panting forth volumes of blue-white breath over the whole universe. And within this fearful area the perpetual rattle and roll of musketry continued their fell  work, while the wounded, red with their gore, and redder with the scorching of the flames, crept, and crawled and reeled to places of safety, or, woeful truth, writhed where they fell, victims to the most horrible torture that  fiendish imagination has yet devised. Amid the stentorian rampage none could hear their cries for aid, none could see their struggles for release. Only now and then, when some succeeded in emerging from the fiery chaos, could the  appalled few who were beyond the vivid halo of destruction realise the mighty horror that lay on the skirts of Biddulph's Hill. But the battle raged on. The Yeomanry, under Colonel Blair, were off in hot haste to attack and rout  some Boers who were endeavouring to make a flank attack, while the artillery, despite the scene of carnage, battered the hills whence the Boers, safely hidden, were pouring a horrible fusilade upon the persevering, dauntless  Grenadiers. These remained for hours returning the fire of the enemy, in a position of unparalleled peril, until the order came to retire. This movement was executed with splendid precision, but many were left upon the field, and  in the succouring of them deeds of heroism followed each other with such rapidity that several glorious acts passed unwitnessed and unsung. Lieutenant Quilter, with twenty men, volunteered to rescue the helpless, and rushed into  the flaming furnace without arms, and under the relentess fire of the enemy. One after another of the wretched sufferers were hauled off to safety by these gallant deliverers, who, in full consciousness of the grim fate that must  have been theirs should they themselves have dropped, pursued their work with almost amazing heroism. Colonel Lloyd received many injuries, and was also much scorched, but continued to command his gallant Grenadiers till further  wounds made him helpless. He might again have been wounded where he lay, but for the assistance of a young drummer (Harries), into whose hand a bullet passed while he was tending his commanding officer.

While the battle was  proceeding, General Rundle received a communication from Lord Roberts ordering him to go to the assistance of General Brabant, who also was in difflculties. It became necessary, therefore, to effect the retirement. The manceuvre  had, however, produced the desired effect, for the Boers had been somewhat hard hit, and had given up their aggressive operations, leaving the n;eighbourhood of Lindley open to our. force. On Wednesday the 3oth General Rundle was  informed that De Villiers, the Boer Commandant, was seriously wounded, and that fifty Dutchmen had been killed, and many injured, whereupon a doctor and champagne were sent to the late enemy; this in spite of the fact that very  early in the proceedings of Monday the Boers had commencect the battle with their customary treacherous tricks. From an adjacent homestead 'they had flown a white flag, taking care that directly the scouts went forward to accept  their surrender they should be pelted liberally as a reward for their confidence. As a result, one of the British party was wounded mortally, and another severely. Fortunately, the next day (Tuesday) the ruffians received their  deserts, for the farmhouse was liberally pounded by the 2nd Battery of Artillery. Nor was this the sole barbaric act of the day. A West Kent Yeoman, while scouting, had passed a Dutch farmhouse, and was invited in to coffee, being  assured by the Dutchwoman, who desired to play the hostess, that no Boers had been near the place for days. Happily the wary yeoman refused, for he had no sooner turned to ride off than he was pelted with bullets from a party of  Boers who had immediately rushed from the homestead to fire at him. His marvellous escape was merely due to the nature of the ground round the farm, which afforded him cover.

Still General Rundle's sense of humanity overcame the  instinct of reprisal; for after the battle he offered shelter to the Boer wounded, even promising to tend them without considering them prisoners of war.

In the engagement at Biddulph's Berg thirty of the Bntish were killed and  150 wounded. Among the wounded officers were

Grenadier Guards-Col. F. Lloyd, D.S.O., Capt. G. L. Bonham, Capt. C. E. Corkran, Lieut. E. Seymour, Lieut. A. Murray. Scots Guards-Major F. W. Romilly D.S.O. Royal Welsh  Fusiliers-Captain R. S. Webber, A.D.C. to General Rundle.

On Thursday, May 31st, the troops proceeded to Ficksburg to the assistance of General Brabant, who had engaged the enemy near the Basuto Border on the Tuesday, and was  sti]l fighting.

In spite of General Rundle's desperate fight, the 13th Battalion (Irish) Imperial Yeomanry, on whose account the battle was under-taken, had a most disastrous encounter with an overwhelming number of Boers near  Lindley on the 31st of May. This bactalion, as we know, was attacked on the way from Kroonstad to Lindley, and temporary helped by the operations near Senekal. Subsequently the party came upon a superior force of Boers, and was  forced to surrender.

The Cape Times gave its version of the affair :-

"The story was told by Corporal Marks, who, with Trooper Brian, alone escaped capture. The force in question consisted of about 500 men, under the  command of Colonel Spragge, and was comprised of the Duke of Cambridge's Own and the Irish and Belfast Yeomanry. The Duke's were I25 strong. With this force was a convoy of waggons, while the scouts, of whom our informant, Corporal  Marks, was in command, numbered five.

"The little battalion left Kroonstad on May 25, under hurried orders to reinforce General Colvile at Lindley without delay. On their way they captured and disarmed a troop of sixteen  Boers whom they found in possession of a quantity of ammunition. Taking their prisoners with them, they hurried on at full speed, arriving at Lindley on Sunday, May 27, about noon. As they entered the town a number of horsemen were  seen galloping out at the other end in the direction of Heilbron. Much to their disappointment our men found that General Colvile had left at daylight that day, after some severe fighting, for Heilbron.

"On Wednesday night,  after the gallant little band had been fighting against enormous odds for three days, Colonel Spragge decided to send one scout (C. Smith), in company of a Kaffir guide, in search of General Rundle, who was supposed to be in the  neighbourhood of Senekal, with an urgent message for help. Corporal Marks and Trooper Brian were instructed to leave at the same time with a similar message for General Colvile. A close Boer line had been drawn round the position  of the devoted garrison, and it was necessary to pierce the cordon to reach Heilbron. The scouts left unarmed, and after a terrible night of it, Marks and Brian got through the enemy's lines. The night was bitterly cold, and the  Boers had lighted camp fires, which proved serviceable guides to the two men. They passed so close to the pickets that they could hear them talking and laughing perfectly distinctly. Taking a circuitous route, they kept the  Heilbron road some distance on their right, and by rapid marching reached Colvile's camp at seven o'clock on Thursday morning. The message was delivered to the General, whose reply was that he could do nothing. Unhappily, Smith and  the Kaffir were captured by Boers, and Smith was shot on the spot.

"The following is a copy of the despatch given to Corporal Marks for delivery to Colonel Spragge :-

'Your message received 7 A.M. I am eighteen miles from  Lindley and twenty-two from Heilbron, which latter place I hope to reach to-morrow. The enemy are between me and you, and I cannot send back supplies. If you cannot join me by road to Heilbron you must retire on Kroonstad, living  on the country, and if necessary, abandoning your waggons.-(Signed- H. E. COLVILE, Lieutenant-General.)'

"General Colvile appears to have believed that the little force could make a dash for it and cut their way through to  Kroonstad. In any case, he did not see his way to go to the help of the men who had been marching to reinforce himself. Knowing that this message could be of no possible service to Colonel Spragge, and realising th~ urgency of the  case, Corporal Marks decided to take the responsibility of not wasting time by returning to deliver this message, and he and Brian made for Kroonstad as hard as their horses would gallop. About eight miles north-east of the town  they learned that Lord Methuen was in the neighbourhood, and they reached his camp about half-past four that afternoon (Thursday). Lord Methuen immediately made preparations to relieve the plucky little force in such hard straits  at Lindley, and started the same afternoon. He reached Lindley without opposition the same night. But it was too late."

Another account said :-" The battalion, consisting of the Duke of Cambridge's Own and three  companies of Irish Yeomanry-under 500 in all-reached Kroonstad on Friday morning, May 22, after a long forced march. A few hours after their arrival they received an urgent message from General Colvile requiring them to join him  without delay at Lindley, and they started at 8 p.m. that same evening with one day's rations, reaching Lindley, fifty miles distant, on the Sunday morning. When the advanced guard reached the town they found it apparently  deserted, the only signs of British occupation being empty beef and biscuit tins; and were informed that General Colvile had left at daybreak. Almost immediately they were fired at from behind walls and houses, and finding the ~ace  untenable retreated about a mile outside the town, where Colonel Spragge took up a good position on some kopjes, with a stream of water and good shelter for the horses and waggons. This place they defended, fighting by day and  fortifying by night, till Thursday, at 2 P.M., on slender rations, though surrounded by greatly superior numbers. On Thursday morning the Boers were largely reinforced, and also brought up cannon-three Krupps and a 'pom-pom, '-when  the shell-fire telling dreadftilly at short range, Colonel Spragge felt it would be madness to hold out longer, and surrendered after losing more than seventy-eight in killed and wounded out of his small force-when all was over  some of the unwounded were so exhausted that they could hardly march into Lindley, where their gallant enemies as well as the non-combatants gave them the highest credit for the stand they had made in an almost hopeless position.  Next day Lord Methuen arrived after a splendid forced march, and the wounded were set free."

In regard to the loss of the Duke of Cambridge's Yeomanry,. there was a good deal of criticism, and accounts dealing with the  raison d~etre of the disaster vary. Mr. Winston Churchill, in support of Sir H. Colvile, declared that it was sent out with the absurdly inadequate escort by the fiat of a higher authority, with the full knowledge that Heilbron was  surrounded by a force of Boers estimated at from 4000 to 5000 men. It was also despatched without warning, being sent, or at any rate received at Heilbron, so that it was impossible to operate from the latter place to assist its  passage, especially as it was actually captured almost immediately after leaving Kroonstad, and fourteen miles from Heilbron.

"In the case of the Yeomanry, the message giving notice of the change of place, where it was to  join the 9th Division from Ventersburg to Lindley, was by error addressed to the 9th Brigade, and this was not received by Sir H. Colvile till the 21st of June. The first intimation of their position was given by a messenger to  General Colvile's camp when twenty miles out of Lindley from the Yeomanry, then five miles on the other side on the Kroonstad road. The messenger asked for reinforcement and supplies, but did not represent the situation as very  serious, as, in fact, at that time it was not. But at this juncture General Colvile was surrounded by a large force of Boers on his flank and rear, and short of supplies himself, and on a time march under orders to rcach Heilbron  on the 29th. He therefore advised Colonel Spragge to retire on the Kroonstad road, and authorised him, if necessary, to abandon his baggage, &c."

Lord Methuen, who at the time was on the march to Kroonstad, was ordered  off, as we already know, to the rescue. Within half-an-hour he had started, and by 10 A.M. on the 2nd of June he had accomplished forty-four miles in twenty-five hours. But his expedition was of no avail, for Spragge's Irishmen had  been taken prisoners. Nevertheless having arrived, Lord Methuen proceeded to attack the Boers with vigour, and after five hours' continuous fighting, put some 3000 of them to flight.

The official list of prisoners of war showed 22 officers and 863 non-commissioned officers and men.

Among the officers were the following

13th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry-Lieutenant-Colonel Spragge, Lieutenant-Colonel Holland,  Captain Robinson, Captain Humby, Lieutenant Mitchell, Lieutenant Stannus, Lieutenant the Earl of Leitrim, Lieutenant Rutledge, Lieutenant Montgomery, Lieutenant Lane, Lieutenant Du Pre Lieutenant Donnelly, Sergeant Wright, Sergeant  Woodhouse. Captain Keith bad been killed in the affair of the 29th, when Captain Sir J. Power was dangerously wounded, and Captain the Earl of Longford, Lieutenants Stuart, Robin, and Benson, were wounded together with Lieutenant  Bertram of the Eastern Province Horse (since dead).

The following officers were also wounded on June I and 2

3rd Battalion Imperial Yeomanry-Captain L. R. Rolleston, Captain M. S. Dawsany, Lieutenant L. E. Starkey.

Soon after  this time the 9th Division was split up, owing to the necessity of detaching small forces: Generals Smith-Dorrien and Bruce-Hamilton joined their forces with that of General Ian Hamilton, while General MacDonald with the Highland  Brigade acted as an independent force, and General Sir. H. Colvile returned to England.