The Imperial Yeomanry were born out of the disasters that became known as ‘Black Week’ in December 1899, after these set-backs it became obvious to all that mounted infantry were needed in large numbers to counter the fast moving, hard hitting Boers. At the start of the war there had been many offers from the Colonels of existing county yeomanry regiments to provide forces for South Africa, some at no cost to the Government, all were politely but firmly rejected.
The Yeomanry were a volunteer organization that had been in existence for over a hundred years, the Pembroke Yeomanry having the distinction of being the only unit to have a battle honour on British soil for their defeat of the small French invasion force at Fishguard in 1797. A decision was taken by at the War Office on the 13th of December 1899 to allow a contingent of volunteer forces based on the standing yeomanry regiments, this was a watershed decision in the war. The acceptance that the conflict was not going to be a swift and painless operation and that every man, whether standing army or volunteer, would be needed to defeat this desperate enemy. The birth of the Imperial Yeomanry was through a Royal Warrant dated the 24th of December 1899 and from this warrant the standing Yeomanry regiments were asked to provide service companies of around 115 men each. The new Imperial Yeomanry were to be raised on a county basis with the core being the men of the existing volunteer units, the remainder of the numbers being recruited from individuals that met the strict criteria laid down.
The Royal Warrant stated:-
1. Her Majesty's Government have decided to raise for active service in South Africa a mounted infantry force, to be named "The Imperial Yeomanry".
2. The force will be recruited from the Yeomanry, but Volunteers and civilians who possess the requisite qualifications will be specially enlisted in the Yeomanry for this purpose.
3. The force will be organized in companies of 115 rank and file, 1 one captain and four subalterns to each company, preferably Yeomanry officers.
4. The term of enlistment for officers and men will be for one year, or not less than the period of the war.
5. Officers and men will bring their own horses, clothing, saddlery and accoutrements. Arms, ammunition, camp equipment and transport will be provided by the government.
6. The men to be dressed in Norfolk jackets, of woollen material of neutral colour, breeches and gaiters, lace boots, and felt hats. Strict uniformity of pattern will not be insisted on.
7. Pay to be at Cavalry rates, with a capitation grant for horses, clothing, etc.
8. Applications for enrolment should be addressed to colonels commanding Yeomanry regiments, or to general officers commanding districts, to whom instructions will be issued.
9. Qualifications are: Candidates to be from 20 to 35 years of age, and of good character. Volunteers or civilian candidates must satisfy the Colonel of the regiment through which they enlist that they are good riders and marksmen, according to the Yeomanry standard.
The original contingents of the I.Y. were an amazing collection of individuals who were generally socially superior to the men of the regular army they were meant to serve alongside. The 47th Company (Duke of Cambridge’s Own) consisted almost totally of gentlemen from the City of London who not only gave their wages over to the Imperial War Fund but were willing to pay for a horse, their equipment and passage to South Africa. Apart from the 47th there was also Paget’s Horse (19th Bn.) which was recruited through gentleman’s clubs, in total over 50% of the original contingent were of middle and upper classes. This figure included many troopers who had resigned a county Yeomanry commission, they were so desperate to get involved in the conflict. A typical example of the kind of infectious enthusiasm of this group of men was demonstrated by the South Notts. Hussars:-
“”On the morning of Christmas Eve 1899, a notice was to be found in conspicuous places in Nottingham. It was from the War Office and it invited members of the Yeomanry to enrol in the forces required as the result of the hostilities declared in October '99 by the Transvaal Republic, later to be assisted by the Orange Free State.
The proclamation was under the hands of the commanders of the Sherwood Rangers, the South Notts. Hussars, the Yorkshire Hussars and the Yorkshire Dragoons. Such was their willingness to join the cause Col. Rolleston and his men, (and in 24 hours there were to be 160 volunteers, including 9 commissioned officers) were mobilised on the 4th January 1900 and 25 days later they were off to Cape Town, sailing on the troopship, SS Winifredian.
The 3rd Regiment of Imperial Yeomanry amounted to four squadrons or companies and the South Notts. Hussars' contingent became ‘12' Squadron (title numbers were not consecutive). Colonel Lancelot Rolleston was its 'Captain' and Captain R.L. Birkin was his 'Lieutenant’. Among the N.C.O.s and men in the Nominal Roll are the names of 'Corporal' H.L Birkin and ‘Trooper' T.P Barber. Both S.N.H. Officers, they had surrendered their commissions to join the 'party'. “”
Standards of troops raised in this manner tended to vary considerably. The laid down regulations of men being able to both ride and shoot proficiently was prone to a certain ‘slippage’ in some companies. This meant that some men arriving in South Africa had minimum horsemanship skills. Sadly even more of the men were poor marksmen, a fact that some of them would not live to regret. Thankfully a lot of the companies were held up at the Cape for long periods awaiting transport up country which gave them time for much needed training and acclimatization.
Eventually a force of 550 officers and 10,371 men formed the original contingent of the I.Y., made up of 20 battalions of 4 companies each, the 8th and 16th battalions being 3 companies strong. The I.Y. began to arrive in South Africa from early February of 1900 and this process continued until early April. The 17th and 18th Battalions, being part of the Rhodesia Field Force did not arrive in Africa until May when they landed at the swampy and insect ridden Mozambique town of Beira. Once in the Cape the men were sent the five miles to Maitland Camp where conditions soon proved to be quite awful. The camp was understaffed and had few facilities for the huge influx of men it was meant to deal with, for many the journey up country would be a welcome change from the cramped conditions and ennui of the Base camp.
When the Yeomanry eventually left Maitland a grand plan had been hatched to spread the various battalions around the zone of operations. Four battalions (3rd, 5th, 10th & 15th) were to head for Mafeking, ten battalions (1st, 4th, 6th,7th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th & 19th) were to serve in the Orange Free State and the 2nd Battalion were to join Sir Charles Warren in Griqualand. The 8th, 19th and 20th Battalions were to remain in the Cape Colony. This plan proved little more than a theory however as the huge demand for mobile forces meant that companies of yeoman were detached from their HQ elements for weeks at a time and some battalions never even formed as such.
The first action of the new force came on the 5th of April 1900 where elements of the 3rd and 10th Battalions engaged a rather strange force of foreign volunteers under the command of the aristocratic Frenchman Count de Villebois-Mareuil at Boshof, north west of Kimberley. By a series of tactical errors the Boer sympathizers allowed themselves to be surrounded and the Count was killed. It was a fine victory at the sad cost of 3 dead (Lieutenants C.W. Boyle and A.C. Williams, Sergeant Patrick Campbell) but the Boer would prove to be a much tougher and elusive enemy as they soon showed at Lindley later the next month.
Lindley was, in all senses of the word, a humiliation for the British. Not only did nearly an entire battalion of yeoman fall into the hands of the Boer, but the manner of their capture and the fact that the it was the 13th Battalion made matters much worse. The battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Basil Spragge, had been ordered to join the 9th Division under Colvile at Kroonstad. Because of a mix up in communication (Spragge claimed he was sent a telegram, Colvile denied sending one) the battalion instead headed for the Boer held town of Lindley where the pre-warned Boers were waiting for them. On the afternoon of the 27th of May 1900 the 13th battalion rode into Lindley and were shocked to find that it was not Colvile but a large contingent of the enemy that met them. Spragge made the decision to hold his ground in a group of hills to the north west of Lindley and await help, messages were sent but the manner of the message did not contain the tone of urgency that the situation required, as such no plan to assist the battalion was put into operation until it was too late.
After choosing his ground the situation for Spragge and his battalion grew rapidly worse, they were surrounded by a far more numerous enemy who also had artillery (it arrived on the 29th under command of De Wet). By the morning of the 31st of May the situation had become almost untenable and the final outcome was sealed when the party of the 47th Company commanding a critical position surrendered. With no chance of holding out, Spragge surrendered at around half past two in the afternoon. The yeoman had lost 1 officer and 16 men killed, another 1 officer and 3 men died of wounds. The Boers captured over 400 men in total, a huge shock, not only to the yeoman but to the public back in Britain. To make matters worse the men of the 13th battalion were the Duke of Cambridge’s Own and the three Irish companies, these men symbolized the wealth and power that had been associated with this corps. The D.C.O. had been nicknamed the ‘Millionaires’ Own’ because of the number of hugely wealthy men in it’s ranks and the Irish companies contained large amounts of money and title from the landed families of Dublin and Belfast. Within a few months of arrival in South Africa the yeoman had been given both a bloody nose, sadly this was not to be it’s last.
These pitched battles were rare events for the Yeomanry who rode hundred of miles over the veldt and met the Boer at infrequent times. The yeoman formed flying columns that moved constantly from dawn to dusk with only poor rations and little chance of shelter, hardly surprising that the rate of disease and death soared and the ranks of these men were thinned constantly. The story of the I.Y. for the remainder of 1900 was of minor victories and some occasions where it’s volunteer status became all too obvious, an example of this being on the 26th of June where the 35th Company fled from a Boer attack north of Senekal. In July the I.Y. were heavily engaged in the hunting of the Boer General De Wet in an attempt to stop his fleeing into the Transvaal, they did not succeed in this, a failure for which they were to pay for at a later date.
In September 1900 word began to spread among the men about the decision to send that other volunteer unit, the City Imperial Volunteers, home. Although the C.I.V. had been in South Africa since late January the decision to return them to England caused huge resentment and disillusion among the yeoman. The constant monotonous routine of patrolling was beginning to bite deeply into the enthusiasm that had brought these men to Africa. Another cause of resentment was the policy of farm burning that had been imposed by Roberts in the Summer of 1900, work that the educated men of the yeomanry found hard to stomach. This policy was eventually stopped in November.
The morale of the men was low, men volunteered for service with the Transvaal Constabulary and other police forces to escape the monotony, regular units snapped up the ‘prime material’ of the yeoman as officers and various Government departments offered these literate men fine jobs. With these reductions and the men who perished or were medically discharged the numbers of yeoman began to fall to alarmingly low numbers. No policy had ever been agreed upon to reinforce the original contingent, as such by the end of 1900 there was barely a third of these men left serving. When General Roberts left South Africa in December 1900 he pressed for a return of the volunteer infantry companies and the original contingent of the I.Y. on the basis that if something was not done quickly, the consequences for future volunteer forces would be dire. Although the original contingent had actually signed for ‘a year or for the duration of the war’ it was decided that they had done enough and recruitment began immediately for a second and larger contingent of Imperial Yeomanry in early 1901.
The second contingent or ‘new’ yeomanry were a totally different force from that of the original. Gone were the patriotically motivated educated men, the new recruit of 1901 was likely to have much more in common with his regular soldier comrades. Generally working class and with a motivation derived from a 5 shilling a day wage (as opposed to the shilling a day in the infantry, little surprise many men transferred from the volunteer companies of infantry battalions to the I.Y.), the new yeomanry came to South Africa as very poor soldiers with none of the hard won skills of the original contingent. For a few months the small remainder of the original contingent served alongside the second, long enough for the veterans to be filled with a sense of foreboding that proved more than accurate. Eventually in June and July 1901 the veterans, bar those who had re-enlisted with the new force (including a lot of enlisted men who were commissioned) returned to England. It is amazing to note that a lot of these men ended up as officers in WW1 and such men as Corporal Shand of the Pembroke Yeomanry ended up as a C.O. of the Green Howards, gaining the V.C.. The experiences they gained in South Africa were not wasted.
The second contingent was born in haste, trained in chaos at Aldershot in January and February 1901 and a lot of the men were packed off to the war before it’s officers had even been selected. Apart from the social differences, the new I.Y. also contained a lot of married men who had been positively discouraged from joining in 1900. The Government was keen to settle the new claimed lands and offered the yeoman the chance to bring their families with them. For most, those companies that were so carefully selected by county in 1900 were now formed from any batch of recruits at Aldershot who were ready, the common bond of geography was gone. The situation in South Africa had also changed drastically, the half-hearted Boers had gone, leaving only the men determined to fight to the last. The war had become very guerilla in nature, thrust into this theatre, the yeoman found life very difficult.
If some ‘slippage’ in standards had been allowed in the original contingent, those in the new yeomanry were at times ignored. Over 700 men who had been passed fit in England were sent back from South Africa as medically unsuitable or unlikely to become efficient soldiers. At least those who proved fit had come from hard existences that if nothing else, prepared them for the harsh life on the veldt. Problems also occurred with the officer selection that was an administration disaster, it caused men to be chosen who had no experience or leadership potential. Some officers were sent straight back home after being found to be cowards, drunkards or just plain incompetent. To counter these problems the companies of yeoman were increased to 155 men (so less officers were required), officers were drafted in from other units and some of the original contingent were convinced to stay on.
The first blooding of the new force came at Vlakfontein on the 29th of May 1901, 230 yeoman of the 7th Battalion being involved. The force under Brigadier General Dixon consisted of yeoman, artillery, some Scottish Horse and some men of the Derbyshires. The rear-party, consisting of the yeoman, 100 Derbyshires and 2 guns were attacked by 500 Boers, the yeoman fled after suffering 70 casualties and left the Derbyshires and artillerymen to be shot down. Only a counter-attack, launched by the Scottish Horse and some K.O.S.B.’s saved the guns and salvaged some pride. At best the I.Y. could claim that some men had joined in the counter-attack but their reputation had already begun to suffer and questions were being raised in parliament about their suitability for this campaign.
In the same way as the original contingent, the improvement of the force became evident as they stayed in the field and by September 1901 they had improved immensely. Near Rustenburg in this month men of the 5th and 9th Battalions fought off an attack on a column which cost it 12 dead and in a hard fought engagement at Moedwil on the 30th the yeoman and Scottish Horse again gave a good account of themselves. In England, at the end of 1901, there were plans to reduce the incessant reduction of the I.Y. by wastage. Whilst a system of drafts had yet to be introduced, the authorities raised the 25th and 26th Battalions from former I.Y. soldiers, ex-regulars and men who had served in the colonies. A third contingent was also being raised as early as December to allow these new men the time for some proper training before deployment, lessons of a year ago were being learned.
The worst catastrophe of the second contingent occurred at Tweefontein on Christmas morning of 1901. The 11th Battalion were caught by De Wet in an awful position that they had been ordered to occupy. The Boers had quickly taken a position overlooking the British camp and from there they fired mercilessly into the tents of the sleeping men below. Despite attempts by various officers and S.N.C.O.’s the camp was taken and 289 yeoman were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. This was not to be the last disaster for the second contingent, a convoy was attacked and captured by De la Rey at Yzerspruit on the 25th of February 1902 which left the 5th Battalion of I.Y. with 28 dead and 34 wounded. The worst disgrace happened however near Tweebosch on the 7th of March 1902. The column under direct control of Methuen (who was wounded and captured by De la Rey) was attacked by 2000 Boers with artillery they had captured at Yzerspruit. The colonial mounted troops panicked and fled, for the most part sweeping the yeoman with them. The 86th Company had the sad distinction of fleeing 3 miles without firing a shot. The regular troops left with the convoy had no chance and the casualties were huge with 68 dead, 121 wounded and over 600 men taken prisoner.
It was for these disasters, and not the huge good work that the majority of the yeoman achieved, that the second contingent became known as ‘De Wets’ own’. There were tales of true grit and heroism within the span of the new yeomanry, including those portrayed by Taylor and Coates at Blaauwater. There were countless actions both large and small in which they performed heroically in the best traditions of the army to which they had volunteered and not all commanders had low opinions of these men.
By the signing of the peace treaty on the 31st of May 1902 the third contingent had begun to arrive, the 27th to 32nd Battalions arriving at the Cape just days prior to this event and as such ‘squeezing’ a medal which was denied to the men of the 33rd to 39th Battalions who arrived shortly afterwards. The third contingent was a better trained force which had been in barracks for months before sailing to South Africa. They stayed in the country long into 1903 to help in the stabilization process.
Though not always a success, the experiment of the I.Y. in South Africa did teach the Government and Army valuable lessons. It had showed that volunteers could serve alongside regulars with few problems, a lesson that proved vitally important just over a decade later when a new threat arose. In that conflict the problems that had arisen with the I.Y. were foreseen and a huge volunteer force left the UK to fight overseas.