1899 - 1902



Anglo Boer War
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Late in September a force consisting of two battalions of infantry, a regiment of cavalry, and two field-batteries was hurriedly pushed forward to occupy  Dundee. Affairs between the British and the Boers were nearing a crisis. It was beginning to be believed that the Dutchmen meant to take the initiative and strike a blow against our supremacy in South Africa, though some at  home were still shilly-shallying with sentimental arguments as to the propriety of fighting our "brother Boer" at all. As we now know, it wanted but the smallest move on the part of the British to bring things to a  head. Large commandoes were gathered together with a rapidity which would have been marvellous had the Boers not designedly brought about the issue of war, and the frontier of the northern angle of Natal was threatened. Dundee  is an important coal-mining centre, situated some forty-eight miles north-east of Ladysmith. Why it was chosen as our advance post is hard to decide. Its communications with Ladysmith were open to attack from either flank, and,  in the light of after events, we see that the~position there of a detached force was highly precarious. General Sir George White in an official despatch thus describes his action in the matter :-"Since my arrival in the  Colony I had been much impressed by the exposed situation of the garrison of Glencoe, and on the evening of October 10 I had an interview on the subject with his Excellency the Governor, at which I laid before him my reasons  for considenng it expedient, from a military point of view, to withdraw that garrison, and to concentrate all my available troops at Ladysmith. After full discussion his Excellency recorded his opinion that such a step would  involve grave political results and possibilities of so serious a nature that I determined to accept the military risk of holding Dundee as the lesser of two evils. I proceeded in person to Ladysmith on October 11, sending on  Lieutenant-General Sir William Penn Symons to take command at Glencoe.

"The Boers crossed the frontier both on the north and west on October 12, and next day the Transvaal flag was hoisted at Charles-town. My great  inferiority in numbers necessarily confined me strategically to the defensive, but tactically my intention was, and is, to strike vigorously whenever opportunity offers."

Everything at this juncture depended on the  rapidity with which our army ar home could be mobilised and sent to the Cape, and though we took to ourselves some credit for the energy displayed by all concerned, we were really scarcely up to date in the matter of activity.  For instance, in 1859 it took only thirty-seven days for France to collect on the river Po a force of 104,000 men, with 12,000 more in Italy, while in 1866 the Prussian army, numbering 220,000 men, were placed on the frontiers  of Saxony and Silesia in a fortnight. But more expeditious still was Germany in 1870. In nine days she ~ was able to mobilise her forces, and in eight more to send to the French frontier an army of 400,000 soldiers and 1200  guns! We had, it is true, to ship off our troops a distance of some 8ooo miles, but, without counting this-a natural disadvantage-there were others-many others, the upshot of red-tapism-to be contended with. This Sir George  White was beginning to feel, but his sufferings in regard to the initial delay were threefold later on.

To return to Dundee. It was maintained both by the Government and the people of Natal that the valuable coal supply  should be protected, and an attempt was therefore made to guard it. The misfortune was that from the first Lieutenant-General Sir W. Penn Symons-who, before the arrival of Sir George White, commanded in Natal-seemed to be ill  acquainted with the enormous forces that the Boers could bring to bear against him. It was true. that he could not at that time be certain; any more than appeared to be the Government at home, that the Free Staters would join  the Republicans; but to any one acquainted with the subject, the fact that President Steyn had pulled the strings of the Bloemfontein affair was sufficient evidence of a contemplated alliance. With the Free State neutral, the  aspect of affairs might have been entirely changed, and Dundee, with Ladysmith to support it, might have held its own. As it was, these small places were from the first placed in the most unenviable quandary.

General Symons,  on the arrival of Sir George White in Natal, took command of the forces in Dundee, and began active preparations for the reception of the Dutchmen.

The latter, immediately after the declaration of war, took possession of  Newcastle, and our patrols soon came in touch with the enemy. In spite of their animated and aggressive movements, however, Sir W. Penn Symons was disinclined to believe that the enemy meant a serious attack upon Dundee, and  though fully' prepared for hostilities, he was somewhat amazed when really informed of the rapid advance of the united Republicans. But he lost no time. He made inquiries, and satisfied himself that he was in a position of some  danger and that he must promptly leap to action. The chief difficulty of the situation lay in the number of passes through which the Boers with their easily mobilised forces could manage to pour in bodies of men, and the  limited number of British troops at General Symons's disposal. From the movements of the Boers it was obvious that the plan of attack had long been cleverly and carefully arranged. The Free State Boers on the I2th of October  seized Albertina Station, near the Natal frontier, and took possession of the key, the stationmaster having to make his way on a trolley to Ladysmith. There, as yet, all was externally peaceful, as though no enemy were near,  but a suppressed anxiety to be "up and at 'em" prevailed among the troops. Their ardour was in nowise damped by the incessant rain that fell, and converted the surrounding country into a wide morass, nor by the snow  that followed, which gave the Drakenberg Mountains an additionally impregnable aspect and rendered them at once picturesque and forbidding.

A steady increase of the commandoes in the neighbourhood of Doornberg continued, and  an attack within a few days seemed imminent. Thereupon a large number of troops left Ladysmith for Acton Homes, where a Boer commando of four miles long was reported to be laagered. But the Boers retreated, and the troops  remained some ten miles from Ladysmith, the Dublin Fusiliers alone moving back to Glencoe, whence they had come by train by order of General Symons.

At Glencoe we had, as before stated, some 4000 men, but report said that  General Viljeon had an enormous force, nearly double ours in number, which was lying at the foot of Botha's Pass, one and a half miles on the Natal side of the Border. Besides this, General Kock had a commando at Newcastle. The  invasion 6f Natal by the Boers in three columns was formally announced by an official statement from the Governor


"Natal was invaded from the Transvaal early on the morning of the 12th inst., an advance being made by the enemy in three columns. On the right a mixed column of Transvaal and  Free State Burghers with Hollander Volunteers marched tbrough Botha's Pass. In the centre the main column, under- General Joubert's personal command, crossed - Lang's N ek arid 'moved forward - via Ingogo. - On the left a large  commando advanced from Wakker-stroom via Moll's Nek and Wool's Drift. The object of all three columns was Newcastle, which was occupied on the night of the 14th, the central column having slept the previous night at Mount  Prospect, General Colley's old camping - place. On Sunday an advance party of 1500 Boers, with artillery, pushed south of Ingagane, but the greater portion of this commando retired ]ater in the day on Newcastle. A Boer force  which had been concentrating at De Jager's Drift captured six Natal policemen. A picket of the King's Royal Rifles Mounted Infantry has exchanged a few shots with the enemy. This has hitherto been the only fighting.

"A large force of Free State Boers, estimated at from 1,000 to 13,000, is watching the passes of the Drakensberg from Olivier's Hoek to Collins's Pass. They  have pushed a few patrols down the berg, but hitherto the main force has not debouched from the actual passes, which are being intrenched."

As will be seen, the advance of the foe seemed to be converging on Sir George  White's position from all directions, and threatening Glencoe from the north, east, and possibly west. Still the troops remained cheerful and looked forward to a brush with the enemy. On the 18th hostilities were begun by the'  Free State commando moving about ten miles down the Tintwa Pass. They opened fire with their artillery on some small cavalry patrols, but their shooting was distinctly inferior, and no one was injured. They retreated on the  advance of the 5th Lancers. Several more commandoes were known to have advanced to join a force stationed at Doornberg, some twelve miles from Dundee, and the enemy's scouts having also been seen some seven miles off Glencoe,  an engagement was expected at any moment. An interesting account of this interval of suspense was given by an officer writing on the 16th October from Dundee, interesting and pathetic, too, when, in reading it, we remember that  the gallant fellow to whom the writer alluded is alive no longer. He said :-"Hitherto there has been no fighting at all, but our patrols are in touch with the enemy. I was out on my first patrol the day before yesterday  since the declaration of war. My orders were to start at 6 A.M., push on about twelve miles along the Newcastle road, and stay out till about 6 P.M. I went out to a small hill about four miles frdm the camp and reconnoitred,  and then went on to a place called Hadding Spruit, where I found a few people at the station and the stationmaster. This is at present the terminus of the line, all the rolling stock north of this having beeri sent south, and  all the wires cut and instruments removed by the railway people. There is a large coal-mine here, and the people are in a deadly funk about being blown up. I pushed on to a large kopje, a few miles this side and west of  Dannhauser, and climbed to the top, where I spent an hour or so, as from there one can see as far as Ingagane Nek, four miles this side of Newcastle, the place I sketched. Just as I looked over the top of the hill I saw two men  on ponies with guns. They were talking to a Kaffir. I at once put them down as Boers, and thought of firing at them, but decided not to disclose my position and watch them. This was lucky for them, as I caught them later, and  found them to be refugees flying from the Boers, who I discovered were in occupation of Ingagane and Newcastle, and had their patrols out nearly to Dannhauser.

"I then went on to Dannhauser, which consists of a railway  station, two farms, a store, a couple of coolie stores, a mine, and a few huts. We approached with magazines charged and expected to see a Boer every minute, but found that they were not expected to come down as far as that  till next day. I then made my way slowly back by the main road, and reached camp about 5 P. M., when I found that the other patrol (six men and an officer is the strength of each) had proceeded to De Jager's Drift and had not  returned. A telephonic communication from the police-station at De Jager's Drift said, 'A large force of forty Boers have crossed Buffalo to cut off your patrol. Am trying . . . '-and then ended abruptly. It eventually  transpired that the Boers rushed the police-station before the message could be completed. Thackwell, who was in command of the patrol, pursued twelve Boers up to the river. Then thirty-four crossed to our side, and twelve  lower down, the twelve trying to cut him off behind. However, he retired on to a nek behind, and as they did not come on, he moved off in about half an hour by another road. This was lucky for him, as he saw the twelve men who  had crossed by Landsman's Drift disconsolately coming down from a lot of rocks where they had been lying in wait for him on the road he had come by.

"There seems to have been something going on at Kimberley. I wish they  would buck up here and do something. I am on picket to-night, which means no sleep and a lot of bother, as the picket is about seven miles from camp at the junction of the Vant's Drift and De Jager's Drift roads, where there is  a chance of being plugged at. The picket on the Helmakaar road was shot at the other night.

"One of the armoured trains came up here yesterday-an ugly looking beast with the engine in the middle, all covered with iron,  so that only just the top of the funnel is visible. I do not believe in them. If any one puts a dynamite cartridge under a rail-pop! up goes the armoured train.

"I think this will be a very interesting war, as the  railway will play such an important part in the tactics. Thus the other day we sent the Dublin Fusiliers down to Ladysmith to repel an expected attack at half-an-hour's notice, and brought them back the same night.

"We are under an awfully nice General-one Penn Symons-a real good chap."

On the 18th of October the Carabineers were in touch with the enemy in the neighbourhood of Bester's Farm a great part of the day, and  Lieutenant Galway, son of the Chief-Justice of Natal, who remained to watch his troops off the kopje, was reported missing. The Carabineers were compelled to retire owing to being completely outnumbered by the Boer force, and  had they not done so they would have run the risk of being cut off from their supports. There were some hair-breadth escapes, and Major Taunton, who was riding at the head of his squadron, came through a vigorous hail of  bullets quite uninjured.

Major Rethman, in command of 300 Natal Mounted Rifles, also actively engaged the enemy near Acton Homes, but was also compelled to retire for fear of being cut off Being quite conversant with Boer  tactics, he refused to be drawn by the pretence of retreat made by the Dutchmen, knowing that concealed forces of the enemy in great numbers were waiting to entrap him. Major Rethman, believing in the old saw that brevity is  the soul of wit, reported his loss as '' one hat."

The Dutchmen now advanced. An armoured train, sent by Sir George White to bring in wounded from Bester's Farm, returned discomfited, as the rails over the bridge four  miles off Ladysmith had been tampered with. It was found that a farm, which had been deserted earlier in the day, was now in the occupation of the Boers, but these, though established on the south side of the line, made no  effort to attack the train and allowed it to return unmolested. Rumours of fighting were in the air, and skirmishes between advance parties of British troops and Boers were the order of the day. A report reached the Glencoe  camp that the Boers had been seen some seven miles off whereupon Major Laming with a squadron of the 18th Hussars rode out to reconnoitre. Lieutenant Cape, the advanced officer's patrol, discovered a strong advance party of the  enemy, who delivered a heavy fire, but fortunately without result. This most probably was due to the swift and clever manoeuvring of the Hussars.

The Carabineers and Border Mounted Rifles, who were in action nearly the whole  of the 18th of October, returned to camp at three in the morning of the 19th. They were quite worn out and famished, having been for twenty-four hours without food, and three days and two nights in the saddle. Considering the  excitement and fatigue, they were in excellent spirits. Their experience was a novel one, for on this occasion the Boers, Who usually prefer to skulk under cover, made incipient rushes at certain points. They gave way, however,  before the pressing attentions of the Maxims, and fled helter-skelter to cover again; but their departure was on the principle of "those who fight and run away live to fight another day." They reserved themselves for  a more decisive effort.

At midday on the 19th a mixed train running from Ladysmith to Dundee was captured by the enemy about a mile off Elandslaagte Station, which stands about fifteen miles from Ladysmith, and is the first  station from thence on the line. A war correspondent was taken prisoner, four Carabineers were wounded, and some horses and cattle seized. Telegraphic communication in the north was cut off and four trucks of stores in the  Elandslaagte Station were captured.