1899 - 1902



Anglo Boer War
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The troops with General French were in very fine fettle. They had no past history; they were not damped by the remembrance of a Majesfontein, a Stormberg, or a Colenso. They had perfect confidence in their chief; they had  just enough hard work to keep their wits polished and their minds alert, and in the intervals there was sport of a kind for those who fancied it.

Fighting in and around Colesberg was incessant. The Boers were most stubborn in  their determination to get rid of the British, and General French was equally stubborn in his determination to get rid of the Boers! Colesberg was a situation to be desired, and both British and Boer forces fought desperately  to hold it. It is situated some thirty-seven miles north of Naauwport, which is the junction of a branch line to De Aar. Between Naauwport and Colesberg are undulating pastures, and the town itself, which boasts a population of  I 900 souls, possesses three-till lately-thriving hotels. In addition to these attractions it has for the Boers another-the attraction of being the birthplace of Oom Paul. Its capture would have mightily impressed the waverers  in Cape Colony, consequently General French determined to celebrate the New Year by making another lunge at the enemy.

Early on Monday morning his troops took up a position upon the kopjes surrounding the town. His force,  divided into two brigades commanded by Colonel Porter (Carabineers) and Colonel Fisher (10th Hussars), simultaneously attacked the Boer position.

The second brigade started from Rensburg at five on the previous afternoon,  passed the night at Maider's farm, and in the small hours proceeded to their destination, the Boer position on Val Kop, and seized the kopjes overlooking Colesberg on the west.

The advance was made on the Boer haunts at nine,  and was greeted by a tornado from the surprised enemy, whose position extended for six miles round the entire village. Our artillery answered briskly, continuing a two hours' argument which had the result of effectually  silencing the seven or eight Boer guns. (Curiously enough, on inspection, it was discovered that some of the Boer shells had been manufactured at the Royal Laboratory, Woolwich!)

Meanwhile the cavalry and horse-artillery were  endeavouring to work round to the north of the enemy's position. The foe, ever nimble, was kept "on the trot." He was driven from hill to hill. Brilliantly the Berkshires, under Major M'Cracken, stormed a kopje to the  west of Colesberg, occupying successive positions and pouring a torrent of lead on the enemy, who fled in disorder with loud shouts! Splendidly wheeled the cavalry, under Colonel Fisher, executing at the same time a flank  movement and closing in round the Dutchmen, who had but time to flee. The enemy retired towards the west, followed always by the British, but owing to the peculiar disposition of the many kopjes in the vicinity the task of  pursuing them was difficult. In their retreat towards Colesberg Junction they were hotly chased by the cavalry, and Colesberg itself was left almost in our hands.

On the 2nd of January an unfortunate accident occurred. A  train within the British lines was mysteriously set in motion, and was carried by the impetus given to it in the direction of the Boer lines. It travelled slowly, but sufficiently fast to get out of reach, and as the machine  was full of supplies, it was necessary to fire en and destroy it rather than allow the Boers to reap the reward of rebel treachery. The brakes were found to have been taken off the trucks, and a Dutchman was arrested on  suspicion of having perpetrated the deed. At first an attempt was made to mend the trucks, the working party being supported by Carabineers and the Mounted Infantry; but these were bombarded by the Boers, and finally the trucks  had to be fired to prevent the rations they contained, a quantity of rum, from falling into the hands of the enemy. The New South Wales Lancers under Major Lee, who were sent to the scene to avert looting by the foe, spent five  hours under fire, holding the position and returning the fire with great gallantry.

The small force under General French's command at this time consisted of the Carabineers, ioth Hussars, Inniskilling Dragoons, O and R  Batteries of Horse Artillery, the Berkshires and Suffolks, the New South Wales Lancers and New Zealanders. With this limited number he had worked wonders, driving the Dutchmen out from the kopjes immediately around Arundel, and  forcing them continually to shift their position, a process which effectually deterred them from gaining ground. The Beer position now lay on long lines of kopjes to east and west of the rails, from Taaibosch Laagte to  Rensburg; in the middle of the plain was the dumpling-figured kopje known as Val Kop which the British had been forced to evacuate.

The enemy now prepared a little surprise. At daybreak on the 4th they made a sudden attempt  to outflank the British position beyond Coleskop, westward of the town; thus hoping to reopen communications with the northern waggon bridge.

In General French's report of the day's work, he said: "The enemy was found to  have established himself in strength at some hills running about east and west at right angles to the left rear of our position. The cavalry on the left should not have allowed him to do this unseen, but in turning him out they  rendered signal service. The 10th Hussars, with two guns which I sent to them, threatened to take them in reverse, and they were heavily fired upon by the remaining four guns of 0 Battery in front. This caused several hundred  to abandon the position, and the plain was covered with flying horsemen. The 10th Hussars on one flank, and a squadron of the Inniskillings on the other, dashed after them. The ioth Hussars were checked by some of the Boers  taking up a strong position in some rocks to cover the retreat of the others. In a most gallant style Colonel Fisher dismounted his men and led them on foot against this position, which they carried with great boldness and  intrepidity.

"In this daring operation, I regret to say, Major Harvey was killed, and Major Alexander severely wounded.

"The 6th Dragoons, led by Captain B. A. Herbert, showed no less dash, pursuing the enemy,  mounted, and inflicting some loss with their lances. Some 200 of the enemy had, however, still clung to the hills, and after shelling them for some considerable time, both in front and flank-, I decided to clear the position  with the Mounted Infantry. Advancing under cover of the fire of the artillery, Captain De Lisle moved his men with great skill to a position where he could move against the enemy's right flank. Here he dismounted and advance4  to attack, choosing the ground with admirable care. At this threat at least 1oo more of the Boers took to flight in many small parties, the remainder endeavoured to check the Mounted Infantry advance. When one half the position  was made good, a final exodus was made by the enemy, and twenty-one last remaining Boers surrendered. The Mounted Infantry suffered no casualties. This operation was most skilfully and boldly carried out by Captain De Lisle. It  has been conclusively ascertained that on this day the enemy lost upwards of ninety killed and wounded, Our casualties being six killed and fifteen wounded."

On the 5th of January, Lieutenant Sir John Milbanke, who went  out with a patrol of five men on the plain north of Colesberg, came in touch with the enemy. The Boers galloped up to intercept the small British party, and Sir John Milbanke was slightly wounded in the thigh. This form of  skirmish was an almost daily occurrence, for round the place was a species of Boer girdle. The Dutchmen, like flies-swept off at one moment to return the next-now buzzed in the hills within a mile radius from the town, while on  the north, in the direction of the Free State, and in the east towards Aliwal and Burghersdorp, they remained in undisturbed possession of the country. To the north of Colesberg was a hill which practically commanded the road  to Orange River, and also other roads leading to the town. That this hill should be in British possession was eminently desirable, and Colonel Watson conceived the idea that it might be easily taken and held by us. With General  French's per-mission, on Friday, the 5th of January, he arranged an expedition, a midnight one, for the purpose of gaining the coveted position. He started forth at two o'clock on the morning of the 6th with four companies of  the Suffolk Regiment. After marching stealthily in the darkness for about a mile, they reached the foot of the hill. This kopje had been often reconnoitred by various officers, and it was not due to any rashness on their part  that a lamentable accident occurred. They marched through the dead of night to the top of the hill. In the morning twilight they were attacked by the enemy, whQ, aware of their design, was awaiting them. So completely had the  troops fallen into a trap, that when the rifles blazed out they were at a distance of only thirty paces from the Dutchmen. The Colonel, who had halted to address the men, the Adjutant, and two other officers, were wounded  before the Suffolks had found time to fire a single shot; Indeed, so quickly were they pounced on, that Colonel Watson, on giving orders to charge, fell riddled with bullets. Suddenly orders, none knew from whence, were given  to "retire." Some said it was a ruse of the Boers. The rear fled back to the pickets, some thousand yards off, believing the order came from their officers; others-about a hundred and twenty officers and men-remained,  refusing to budge. They fought bravely, but were eventually compelled to surrender. All were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners. Of eleven officers, but one remained! The Boers were evidently well-informed of the commanding  officer's programme, and their tactics were so clever and combined that they contrived to create something of a panic when the unfortunate Suffolks, who thought themselves only preparing for attack, were definitely attacked.  Critics sitting in judgment at home declared that ordinary precautions would have averted the chance of being entrapped, but others, who knew Kaffir ways and the condition of the country, where every keyhole was an ear and  every leaf of a tree an eye, were inclined to marvel that so few disasters happened.

One of the officers writing of the affair said : "It is quite certain the Colonel never gave that order, or the officers would have  retired too. They remained to a man, except Graham, who was wounded early, and could not hold his rifle. He dragged himself down the hill, and somehow crawled the two miles into camp. The Boers said those that were left charged  three times and behaved splendidly. The position was impossible to take, even if a brigade had attacked, although it had been carefully reconnoitred. The ditch, with the loopholed wall near the top of the hill, could only have  been discovered by a balloon. The Colonel's last words were, 'Remember Gibraltar, my boys!' "

There was deep regret at the loss of this distinguished officer, and the whole force lamented the first check which this  column had sustained. The enemy was shelled at intervals, so as to make his position as uncomfortable as possible, but the Boers still remained in possession of the route leading to the Free State by Achtertang. Soon the Essex  Regiment was sent on to replace the 1st Suffolks who went south to recruit their shattered forces.

Among the wounded officers was Major Graham; Lieutenants Wilkins, Carey, and White were killed. With those taken prisoners  were Captains Brett, Thomson, Brown; Second Lieutenants Allen, Wood-Martin, and Butler. Of the men, 26 were killed, 45 wounded, and 72 taken prisoners or missing.

The British occupied Slingersfontein on the 9th of January.  From this time Colonel Porter and his splendidly alert troops-the 5th Dragoons, New Zealanders and New South Wales Lancers-were busily occupied in keeping the enemy "on the run," forcing him to leave one kopje after  another, and maintaining harassing tactics which entirely upset the Dutchmen's calculations. Still the Boers were ubiquitous. They now held a strong position between Colesberg and Slingersfontein, from which with the small  force at hand it was impossible to dislodge them. On the 13th, the inconvenience of the situation was rendered more intense by a perfect cyclone of dust which caused the utmost discomfort. Meals were also made impossible by the  aggressive attacks of the enemy, who plumped shell after shell in the midst of the camp. Colonel Porter retired hiis troops to the cover of a neighbouring hill, while three squadrons of the 6th Dragoon Guards and four guns of 0  Battery, Horse Artillery, advanced across the plain and prepared to tackle the enemy. This was done with such celerity and decision that almost in five minutes the Boer guns were silenced and the enemy driven to cover. As a  result of the prompt activities of our artillery, the Boer tents were removed eastwards.

These sandstorms, characteristic of the Veldt, were a terrible test to patience. At one moment the camp was an orderly array of mushroom  tents springing decorously from the earth; in the next it was seemingly an animated mass of anthills trying to maintain life against an ochreous avalanche of dust. Occasionally when the cyclone of grit had ceased, it was  followed by a hurricane of hail, accompanied by the gloom of night, the bellow of the blast and growl of the thunder - claps fighting together in the hills. Then would the frightened cattle stampede, and the whole routine of  military life become deranged. A rushing mob, a battle of the elements, a vast ditch irrigated with rivulets, bombardment by the big guns of the wind-such would be the programme for a good hour or so! Then, as often as not, the  sun would suddenly come out and shine affably, with the placid, self-satisfied beam of dear old ladies when they've trumped their partner's best card of a long suit at whist!

After this, the routine of life would go on much  as before, the Dutchmen clinging to their positions, and General French determining to make these as untenable as possible.

On the 15th the New Zealanders had an excellent opportunity of exhibiting their smartness and dash.  The Boers made a stubborn attempt to seize a hill that practically commanded the country to east and west of their main position. This valuable eminence was held by a detachment of New Zealanders and D Company of the Yorkshire  Regiment under Captain Orr. Early in the morning desultory firing began, and later the Boers, increasing the warmth of their fire, worked towards the right of the position held by the New Zealanders. At the same time they  assailed the Yorkshires, directing their fire at a small wall held by them and forcing them to keep close cover. Gradually the Boers advanced, creeping towards the wall ever nearer and nearer. They then blazed furiously from  their position on the slopes, killing the Sergeant-Major and wounding Captain Orr. At this time Captain Madocks, R.A. (attached to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles), and ten New Zealanders appeared on the scene, and, to the  dismay of the Boers, the whole party with a dash and a yell leapt over the wall and charged down on their assailants with fixed bayonets. It was a splendid act, and one which, as the officer commanding the Yorkshires had  dropped wounded, came just in time to save the situation.

Away rushed the enemy, rolling one over another in their effort to be off; while a sustained storm of bullets inflicted heavy loss on their retreating numbers. From  the distance they made a feeble attempt to fire at the gallant fellows who had routed them, but eventually they retired to the small kopjes at the base of the contested hill. There they were saluted by a detachment of two guns  of 0 Battery from the west of the kopje. The enemy's long-range gun now came into play and forced the British guns to move their position farther to the west. That done, the small kopjes were effectively shelled and the  Dutchmen's fire silenced. The whole engagement was a signal success, and the Yorkshires and New Zealanders were well pleased with their share of the day's work. Twenty-one Boers were left dead on the field and many more were  wounded. (On the morning of this day an unfortunate incident occurred at Colesberg. Lieutenant Thompson, R.H.A., while out scouting, was wounded and taken prisoner. This officer, together with Lieutenants Talbot Ponsonby,  Lamont, and Aidridge, was especially mentioned for services performed with the guns.)

The events of the last few days had served to show that, however the Colonials might differ in their customs, habits, and ideas, they were  assuredly identical in their dogged bravery and their fine spirit of dash-

"They come of The Blood, slower to bless than to ban, Little used to lie down at the bidding of any man,"

and Captain Madocks and his  hardy New Zealanders had now the well-merited good fortune to have earned the esteem and appreciation of all who had seen their splendid rush to the rescue of the Yorkshires. On the 16th General French visited the New  Zealanders' camp and congratulated them on their gallant conduct during the fight.

The Boers now brought to bear on the position one of the guns captured by them at Stormberg, and launched some ten shots into the kopjes held  hy a company of the Welsh kegiment. They got as good as they gave, and before long the enemy was completely silenced. General French's system was a tit-for-tat form of warfare, which failed to commend itself to the Dutchmen. It  served well, however-in default of sufficient troops to make any definite advance to hold the enemy from proceeding farther south in British territory. News now came in that a large force of Dutch-men had been transferred from  Majesfontein for the purpose of reinforcing the Boer commandoes at Colesberg, and thus rendering the paralysis of the British complete.

A very serious disaster befell a patrol consisting partly of New South Wales Lancers and  South Australian Horse, who had so nobly volunteered their services to the Mother Country at the begi ning of the war. On the morning of the 16th of January a party of nineteen rode out from Colonel Porter's camp for the  purpose of reconnoitring towards Ochtertang It was not yet dawn, but they pursued their investigations, reaching Norval Camp without seeing any signs of the enemy. About 8 A.M. they commenced the return journey naturally with a  feeling of greater security than when they started. They unfortunately fell into an ambush. A hot Fight ensued, but the Boers were in overwhelming numbers, and the party was hard pressed. Two escaped to camp, and six more,  after hiding till it was possible to make good their escape, followed them. The rest were made prisoners, but not without a struggle, as the bodies of four dead Australian and seven dead Boer horses, left on the field, served  to testify. Lieutenant Dowling was killed. The enemy now occupied Klein Toren to the north of Slingersfontein.

On the 18th inst. Major-General Clements, D.S.O., arrived with two regiments of the 12th Brigade (the Royal Irish  and the Worcestershire), and was placed in command of all the troops at and e.ast of Slinger's Farm. Two battalions were posted at that place, and occupied a good commanding position, which had been well fortified and  intrenched.

General Clements had also, at Slinger's, one company New Zea,land Mounted Rifles; one squadron and four guns. Colonel Porter, 6th Dragoon Guards, with four squadrons, two guns, ano one company of infantry, was  posted at a farm called Potfontein, some eight miles east, and a little south, of Slinger's. The enemy's force at Colesberg was now hemmed in on the west, south, and east, and their position began to look uncomfortable,  particularly as a battery firing lyddite shells was at hand to assist in the British operations. The British now held a 'series of positions of great extent, shaped after the manner of a mark of interrogation, with Colesberg  within the curve of the hook.

The distance to be covered between the camps on the east and west flanks was about sixteen miles. Supplies were conveyed by waggons drawn by mules of South African breed-sleek, and as a rule  good-tempered beasts. The South American mules were of a weakuer stamp, their poor condition being the result of importation. The tracks through the veldt, called by courtesy roads, were now in many places a foot deep in dust  wherever sand-drifts had been lodged, and these promised in the event of rain to develop into morasses.

On the 25th General French made a reconnaissance in person, and discovered that the enemy was strongly posted at  Rietfontein. The reconnaissance occupied two days, during which the troops covered forty miles. In spite of many efforts to cut the Boer's communications with the Free State the Boers outwitted him, or rather out-dodged him,  and retained their hold on Colesberg. Their position consisted of commanding hills down a defile through which a spruit flows towards the Orange River. The windings of this stream are followed by Waggon Road for more than a  mile, then, after passing the hills, it flows over undulating country towards the river.

On Saturday, the 27th, a melancholy incident took place. For some weeks Major MacCracken had been holding a hill close up to the Boer  position, and on this particular morning, though no fighting was taking place, a shell was plumped upon the hill by the enemy with the result that an officer was wounded. A New Zealander named Booth, orderly to General  Clements, was killed while holding the General's horse. At this time General French had mysteriously disappeared. His destination, though not announced, was Cape Town, where he went on a visit to Lord Roberts, whose plans were  rapidly approaching cormpletion. The upshot of that momentous visit we shall discover anon.