South African units

Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry

This corps, to become famous in the course of the war, was raised at Pietermaritzburg by Major A W Thorneycroft of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Prior to the battle of Colenso, 15th December 1899, they did a good deal of patrol work, and thus had some opportunities of getting into shape. From the start they were, apart from a splendid leader, well supplied with good officers. By the middle of November the corps had reached a strength of 500. Their first engagement was outside Mooi River on 22nd November, under Major General Barton, when he was endeavouring to clear the enemy from the country between himself and Major-General Hildyard, who, for four days in November 1899, was practically shut up in Estcourt. The corps had two wounded. At Colenso the regiment was heavily engaged, like the rest of Lord Dundonald's Brigade of Irregulars (see South African Light Horse). The regiment was on the extreme right of the British line, and made a fine effort to capture Hlangwane — indeed some of those who were present expressed the opinion that if any substantial support had been sent them, they would have succeeded in their attempt. General Barton explained to the War Commission that, to his regret, this support could not be afforded (see South African Light Horse). The regiment lost 1 officer, Lieutenant C M Jenkins, and 4 men killed, and 3 officers, Lieutenants W Otto, Ponsonby, and Holford (19th Hussars, attached), and 27 men wounded.

In the movement by which General Buller attempted to turn the Boer right Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry were again with Lord Dundonald. On the 18th and 20th of January 1900 the regiment had not so conspicuous a place as the composite regiment of Mounted Infantry or the South African Light Horse. When Bastion Hill was seized the regiment was on Lord Dundonald's right, keeping in touch with the left of Hildyard's infantry. On the 22nd it was determined that Spion Kop, the great hill, at the angle where the Boer line turned back from the river, must be taken. To allow of the ground being examined the operation was put off till the evening of the 23rd. At first it was arranged to ascend by the south-east face, next Trichard's Drift; but, near dusk on the 23rd, General Woodgate, who was in command of the assaulting force, decided to go by the south-west face. In the brief twilight Colonel Thorneycroft made a hasty reconnaissance, and sketched the outstanding features, trees, kraals, etc. The force employed was the 2nd Battalion Royal Lancaster Regiment, the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, two companies of the 1st Battalion South Lancashire Regiment, and Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, whose strength was 18 officers and 180 men, all dismounted for the task in hand. About 11 pm on the 23rd the force moved off, and after the first half-mile Thorneycroft and his men headed the column, the Colonel himself, with Lieutenants Farquhar and Gordon Forbes and Privates Shaw and Macadam, acting as guides. The most perfect silence was maintained. Halts were frequently made in the ascent, which was so difficult that at times the hands had to be used. During the ascent the column opened out into lines, the order being — Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, Lancashire Fusiliers, Royal Lancaster Regiment, and two companies South Lancashire Regiment. At 4 am the last slope was breasted, a Boer sentry challenged, and instantly the picket fired. The leading lines lay down until it was thought the magazines were emptied, then rushed forward with the bayonet; but the picket fled, and the summit was occupied. Steps were immediately taken to make defensive works. In his report, dated 26th January 1900, Spion Kop Despatches, p 28, Colonel Thorneycroft said: "There was a mist on the hill, and in the darkness and mist it was difficult to get the exact crest line for a good field of fire, and the boulders made it difficult to dig, but we made a rough trench and breastwork". About 4.30 some Boers opened fire; our men replied—then the firing died out for a time. It was found that the trench did not command the ascent - and men were pushed forward to line the crest. The enemy recommenced firing now more heavily. Defensive works were about to be commenced on the crest, about 180 yards in front of the trench, when the mist lifted—this was between 7.30 and 8. The Boers' rifle-fire now became extremely severe, while 3 guns and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt pitched shells on to the plateau with great accuracy from a range of 3000 yards. It was also now discovered that the trench which had been cut was enfiladed at easy range by trenches or natural caves occupied by the enemy. Most of the advanced parties, being also enfiladed, were completely wiped out, but these were constantly reinforced or replaced. Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry had been placed at the left of the trench with parties in advance. When visiting this position about 8 am General Woodgate was mortally wounded. Colonel Blomfield of the Lancashire Fusiliers took command, but he too was wounded. Early in the forenoon, probably about 10 am, Colonel Thorneycroft received a message that he was in command of the hill. The messenger was killed as he delivered the order. Over and over again the advance parties were entirely destroyed. No help could be sent to the wounded. Officers and men who were not killed outright kept on firing as long as they could hold a rifle. In his report Colonel Thorneycroft says: "The Boers closed in on the right and centre. Some men of mixed regiments at right end of trench got up and put up their hands; three or four Boers came out and signalled their comrades to advance. I was the only officer in the trench on the left, and I got up and shouted to the leader of the Boers that I was the commandant and that there was no surrender. In order not to get mixed up in any discussion I called on all men to follow me, and retired to some rocks farther back. The Boers opened a heavy fire on us. On reaching the rocks I saw a company of the Middlesex Regiment advancing. I collected them up to the rocks, and ordered all to advance again. This the men did, and we reoccupied the trench and crestline in front. As the companies of the Middlesex arrived I pushed them on to reinforce, and was able to hold the whole line again. The men on the left of our defence, who were detached at some distance from the trench, had held their ground. The Imperial Light Infantry reinforced this part. The Boers then made a desperate endeavour to shell us out of the position, and the fire caused many casualties. The Scottish Rifles came up, and I pushed them up to the right and left flanks as they arrived".

After speaking of the difficulties arising from the uncertainty as to who was in command on the hill, Colonel Thorneycroft goes on to say: "The heavy fire continued, and the Boers brought a gun and Maxim-Nordenfeldt to bear on us from the east, thus sweeping the plateau from the east, north, and northwest, and enfilading our trenches. The men held on all along the line, notwithstanding the terrific fire which was brought to bear on them as the enemy's guns (which now numbered 5 and 2 Nordenfeldts) were absolutely unmolested. When night began to close in I determined to take some steps, and a consultation was held. The officer commanding Scottish Rifles and Colonel Crofton were both of opinion that the hill was untenable. I entirely agreed with their view, and so I gave the order for the troops to withdraw on to the neck and ridge where the hospital was. It was now quite dark, and we went out to warn all to come in. The enemy still kept up a dropping fire. The regiments formed up near the neck and marched off in formation, the Scottish Rifles forming the rear-guard. I was obliged, owing to want of bearers, to leave a large number of wounded on the field. In forming my decision as to retirement I was influenced by the following — 1. The superiority of the Boer artillery, inasmuch as their guns were placed in such positions as to prevent our artillery-fire being brought to bear on them from the lower slopes near camp, or indeed from any other place. 2. By my not knowing what steps were being taken to supply me in the morning with guns other than the mountain-battery, which, in my opinion, could not have lived under the long-range fire of the Boer artillery and their close-range rifle-fire. 3. By the total absence of water and provisions. 4. By the difficulty of entrenching on the top of the hill, to make trench in any way cover from infantry fire with the few spades at my disposal, the ground being so full of rocks. 5. Finally, I did not see how the hill could be held unless the Boer artillery was silenced, and this was impossible. Lieutenant Winston Churchill arrived when the troops had been marched off".

It may be noted that the shells which did greatest damage to the troops on Spion Kop were those fired from the 15-pounders captured by the Boers at Colenso; and we had thus convincing proof of the efficiency of our own 'time shrapnel'.

It is impossible to do justice to the scene on the hill throughout the day, or to the splendid behaviour of the great mass of the troops. There have been several detailed accounts of the heroic combat published, but none is more realistic than that of Lieutenant L Oppenheim, of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, published in the 'Nineteenth Century' of 1901. Mr Oppenheim has there given a contribution to the history of the war which is invaluable. Colonel Thorneycroft says little about his own doings, so a quotation from Mr Oppenheim is not out of place. "It was one o'clock. A soldier near to Colonel Thorneycroft in the angle of the entrenchment drew his attention to some movement which was going on on the right of the entrenchment, some fifty yards away. The stretch of wall in between was unoccupied. The soldier said, 'By God, they're surrendering', and this was what was happening: About forty men of mixed regiments (amongst whom was no man of the Mounted Infantry) were standing up in the entrenchment with their empty arms raised. Their rifles lay at their feet, and their hands were in the air, while coming up the slope towards them were three Boers. Other Boers were following these behind. The three in front turned and beckoned to their comrades to come on, and all were waving small pocket-handkerchiefs. The leader of the Boers was only about thirty yards away from Colonel Thorneycroft. He was a Transvaaler, by name De Kock, and I continue the story of what then happened as he himself described it to a British officer in the Biggarsberg laager in April. 'We had got up, and we should have had the whole hill' he said; the English were about to surrender, and we were all coming up, when a great big, angry, red-faced soldier ran out of the trench on our right and screamed out, 'I'm the commandant here; take your men back to hell, sir; there's no surrender!'" and then there was ten minutes melee. It was just such a trick as the Boers love. Profiting by the shattered morale of a small body of men who had lost their officers, the Boers were hoping to start a discussion and gain time for more and more men to creep up into the 'dead' ground behind them. The ' great big soldier' was Colonel Thorneycroft, who, grasping the situation, ran forward to the Boer and then back to his men ... Towards sundown the men of the old force were completely exhausted. Since six on the night of the 23rd they had been continuously under arms; they had had absolutely no water and no food. Many of them had been served out with six-pound tins of beef the day before, which they could not carry up the hill, and had, with an improvidence frequently seen, thrown away. Of the lack of water General Woodgate had spoken as early as ten o'clock; a few tins of water had since then been brought up on the backs of mules. Of these more than half had been spilt, for the mules had fallen down the hillside, and the rest was inadequate for the hospital. The intolerable strain of the shell-fire and rifle-fire had told on the stoutest. Amongst the prisoners taken by the Boers from the right of the entrenchment on Spion Kop was an officer. When he arrived in Pretoria on the following day his fellow-captives went out to meet him, anxious to get the news. One asked, 'How's my brother?' His answer was 'Dead'. Another asked, 'How is my brother?' His answer was ' Dead, dead; everybody's dead; the British army is all dead'. And for a month no other answer to every question put to him could an averagely sane and healthy and strong and brave young English officer give to all who spoke to him. Such had been the strain of the 24th of January. "The casualties of the corps, according to the lists published at the time, were: killed, 6 officers— Captains the Honourable W H Petre and C S Knox-Gore, Lieutenants C G Greenfell, P F Newnham, H S M'Corquodale, and the Honourable N W Hill-Trevor— and 20 non-commissioned officers and men; wounded, 4 officers—Captain R. A Bettington, Lieutenants A W J Forster, J W B. Baldwin, and N. Howard— and 41 non-commissioned officers and men; missing, 1 officer and 12 non-commissioned officers and men. Nearly all the latter were afterwards returned as killed. This was practically fifty per cent of the strength.

In his despatch of 30th January 1900, para 6, General Buller said: "I have not thought it necessary to order any investigation. If at sundown the defence of the summit had been taken regularly in hand, entrenchments laid out, gun emplacements prepared, the dead removed, the wounded collected, and, in fact, the whole place brought under regular military command, and careful arrangements made for the supply of water and food to the scattered fighting line, the hills would have been held, I am sure. But no arrangements were made. General Coke appears to have been ordered away just as he would have been useful, and no one succeeded him; those on the top were ignorant of the fact that guns were coming up, and generally there was a want of organisation and system that acted most unfavourably on the defence. It is admitted by all that Colonel Thorneycroft acted with the greatest gallantry throughout the day, and really saved the situation. Preparations for the second day's defence should have been organised during the day and have been commenced at nightfall. As this was not done, I think Colonel Thorneycroft exercised a wise discretion ... I cannot close these remarks without bearing testimony to the gallant and admirable behaviour of the troops; the endurance shown by the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Middlesex Regiment, and Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry was admirable, while the efforts of the 2nd Battalion Scottish Rifles and 3rd Battalion King's Royal Rifles were equally good, and the Royal Lancasters fought gallantly".

It will be remembered that in his covering despatch of 13th February 1900, para 7, Lord Roberts, in forwarding the despatches as to Spion Kop, said: "The attempt to relieve Ladysmith, described in these despatches, was well devised, and I agree with Sir Redvers Buller in thinking that it ought to have succeeded. That it failed may in some measure be due to the difficulties of the ground and the commanding positions held by the enemy—probably also to errors of judgment and want of administrative capacity on the part of Sir Charles Warren. But whatever faults Sir C Warren may have committed, the failure must also be ascribed to the disinclination of the officer in supreme command to assert his authority and see that what he thought best was done, and also to the unwarrantable and needless assumption of responsibility by a subordinate officer". The historian, writing, say, a generation after the war closed, will probably say that the sting in the last sentence lacked the generosity which one likes to associate with the character of a great leader, and it is pardonable to say now that in penning the lines Lord Roberts did injustice to himself. The despatch was dated 13th February 1900, when the Commander-in-Chief was immersed in the great movements for relieving Kimberley, and the day was one of disappointment to himself, as on it he lost the convoy at the Riet river, a loss which was to have no slight effect on his campaign.

The remnant of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry was with Lord Dundonald protecting the right and rear at Vaal Krantz, and took part in the operations which commenced on 12th February and lasted till the 27th, when Ladysmith was relieved (see South African Light Horse). Thorneycroft's men were the first troops to cross the Tugela on the 20th, and did most valuable scouting work on the 21st.

Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry took part in the movement for turning the Boer position on the Biggarsberg and that at Laing's Nek. They suffered slight casualties on various occasions during these operations. In the despatch of 19th June 1900 Colonel Thorneycroft was again mentioned, as was also Captain Mann, killed in action on the 10th. General Buller stated that on the 13th of June he sent back the Telegraph detachment under an escort of 150 men of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry under Captain C F Minchin. "They were attacked by superior forces south of Gans Vlei, whom they drove off, and the waggons were brought safely back via Botha's Pass with the loss of only about seven miles of their line, which they were unable to pick up. I consider that Captain Minchin's dispositions were good". One officer and 2 men gained mention on this occasion.

When General Buller moved north towards Belfast and Lydenburg, the regiment remained with General Clery in the vicinity of the Natal-Pretoria Railway, and had arduous patrol work and often severe fighting, as on 6th September, when 4 men were killed and Captain Molyneux and several men were wounded. General Buller spoke of the great value of their work in his final despatch. In again mentioning the Colonel, General Buller said: "This officer merits the highest commendation I can bestow. His talents both as an organiser and a leader of men are of the highest order". General Buller's 'tenacity' has often been referred to. Here he certainly stuck to his man, and Lord Roberts was to come round so far. In his final despatch of 2nd April 1901, his lordship, referring to Colonel Thorneycroft, said: "Since coming under my immediate command he has gained my confidence as a most gallant and capable leader".

In December 1900 the corps was railed from Standerton to Bloemfontein to strengthen the Thabanchu-Ladybrand line, and if possible to bar De Wet's retreat before the columns of General Charles Knox. De Wet broke through, but lost two guns and some waggons of ammunition (see South African Light Horse). On 16th December Kritzinger and Hertzog, with about 2000 men, entered Cape Colony, and among other troops Colonel Thorneycroft's men were railed to the Colony, where they took part in endless skirmishes arid pursuits. On 25th December Lord Kitchener wired that the corps had occupied Britstown unopposed. The Boers retired in the direction of Prieska, and a few days later the corps was reported by the Commander-in-Chief to be pursuing a body of the enemy in the Carnarvon district. In February De Wet himself entered the Colony, but by the splendid exertions of the numerous columns was soon driven out again, having left behind him all his guns and practically all his waggons. The corps took a prominent part in the pursuit between 14th and 24th February, and had casualties on several occasions. During March and April 1901 Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry were operating in the east of the Orange River Colony, at first south of Bloemfontein and afterwards about Brandfort, surprising and capturing on their farms by night many armed Burghers who, having been disbanded from De Wet's commandos, were living at their homes. In April Thorneycroft dispersed a 'minor gathering' about Winburg.

In May and June Thorneycroft's column was employed in the Brandfort-Senekal-Hoopstad district, and made useful captures. On 1st July they were ordered to march to the Basutoland border, and thereafter from Ladybrand through the south-east of the Orange River Colony to Aliwal in Cape Colony, where they arrived about 28th July. They now moved back across the Orange towards Jagersfontein, arriving there about 6th August. On this last march Thorneycroft took 28 prisoners, 1000 horses, and much stock.

In the middle of August it was apparent that there was to be a gathering of Boers in the south-east of the Orange River Colony, a district the regiment had just passed through, so Thorneycroft's column and other troops crossed the railway into the Smithfield-Rouxville district, but in spite of the close proximity of Colonel Thorneycroft's troops east of Rouxville, Smuts' commando slipped across the Orange into Cape Colony on 4th September. Throughout September the force remained in the same district, and at Florence had sharp fighting, when 3 officers and 5 non - commissioned officers and men of this corps gained mention. Captain Barrett was killed and 3 men wounded at Florence on the 21st.

The corps continued to operate in the Orange River Colony till the conclusion of hostilities, but only on a few occasions were they seriously engaged. In the beginning of April 1902 a portion of the regiment were with Colonel Ternan in the Boshof-Bultfontein district, and a party were in a very mixed patrol under Major Luard, which was suddenly attacked by a large party of Boers under Commandant Badenhorst, and after an engagement which reflected very little credit upon many of our men the majority of the patrol were captured by the enemy. The party from the corps lost 1 killed and 8 wounded, a larger proportion than the other troops with whom they were associated. It was an unfortunate incident in an otherwise spotless career.

The Mentions gained by the corps were as follows :—

General Buller's despatches : 30th March 1900.— Lieutenant Colonel Thorneycroft in the terms already noted; Captain (local Major) G St Aubyn, KKRC, was conspicuous both at Colenso and Spion Kop for great gallantry, has been an excellent second in command. Captains Honourable J Petre, Suffolk Hussars (killed), C H Knox Gore (killed), E Molyneux, E A Bettington; Lieutenants P Newnham, ISC, H Sargent, ISC, J H Baldwin, A Bensusan, M G Farquhar; Colour Sergeant P Myall (killed) ; Corporals P Hetherington (killed), E C Lithie (killed); Privates A Withers, T Dolan, J E Macadam. Sergeant J H Jeffries, conspicuous gallantry on 15th December 1899 at Colenso, and on January 24th at Spion Kop. Sergeant J Mason, conspicuous gallantry at Spion Kop. Privates G E Ackland, J B Fischer, on February 21st, crossing Tugela River under heavy fire to see if there were barbed wire in the drift.

19th June 1900.— Colonel Thorneycroft; Captains H Mann (killed), C F Minchin, ISC; Lieutenant Green ; Corporal Teadall; Private Macgregor.

9th November.— Colonel Thorneycroft in terms already mentioned. Captain St Aubyn (second in command) is a leader of high ability and courage, much above the average of his rank, and has shown great tact in dealing with Colonial troops. Captain M G Farquhar, who has performed exceptionally good service throughout, only joined for the war, and I recommend him for special consideration. Captain E M J Molyneux, 12th Bengal Lancers, a dashing and capable leader of men, has distinguished himself on several occasions. Captain E M Morris, Devon Regiment, has acted as Adjutant throughout the whole twelve months, and has been distinguished for his power of organisation, his tact and management of men in camp, and his ability and courage in the field. Captain A D Green, Worcestershire Regiment, an excellent officer, has shown great ability as a scout, and has dash, pluck, and good judgment. Captain C Minchin, 1st Punjab Cavalry, an officer of many acquirements, has done specially good service throughout. Lieutenant R Villiers, who joined the regiment as a private, having been in the Ceylon Mounted Infantry, specially good work throughout. Major W Peyton, 15th Hussars, succeeded Captain St Aubyn as second in command on July 23rd, when that officer was invalided; with a quick grasp of the situation, he is a leader of high ability, and is also a valuable officer in matters of interior economy. Privates A Neilson and W Strong are brought specially to notice for gallant conduct.

Lord Roberts' despatch: 2nd April 1901.—Colonel Thorneycroft, in terms already mentioned; Captains Farquhar, C Hamilton; Lieutenants T W Howard, G S D Forbes, W R Ponsonby, T Thompson, R N Villiers; Colour Sergeant Makfeeler; Sergeants J Mayne, H Sperling, W M Strong; Privates F Glover, W Lyons, J M'Kechnie; Saddler W Fox; Private A Neilson.

Lord Kitchener's despatches: 8th May 1901.— Private G B Bromley, near Vlakfontein, Orange River Colony, March 13, on patrol, he in company with Lieutenant Rose dismounted and gave his horse to a dismounted man, and covered retirement on foot.

8th October 1901.— Lieutenant Colonel C F Minchin, DSO; Captains R T Barrett (killed), and T Thompson DSO, for conspicuous gallantry in attack on Weasel's Commando in September in charging a donga from which enemy was firing heavily; Sergeants H P Wheatley, T P Jones; Corporal L Alderson promoted Sergeant; Privates A H Horwood and R J Dowling promoted Corporals, for marked gallantry in action at Florence, Orange River Colony, in September.

23rd June 1902.— Captains T Bruce Steer, W K Prettejohn, J Hendry; Sergeant Major A Chadburn, 10th Hussars; Sergeants H P Wheatley, L Alderson, J P Jones, F Hill.

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Col Thorneycroft
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Flower-Ellis, E F
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Hill-Trevor. N W
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Jenkins, C
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McCorquodale, H S
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