By CAPT. G. P. HUNT, Royal Berkshire Regiment.
In November, 1900, four new Battalions of M. I. were assembled at Pretoria: and of these the 13th M. I. was one. It was made up of detachments from various regiments, and No. 1 Co. consisted of seventy N. C. O.'s and men of the Royal Sussex, brought up by Lieut. J. S. Cameron from Lindley, and fifty-five of the Royal Berkshire Regiment under Lieut. G. P. Hunt. The Battalion was commanded by Capt. (afterwards Brevet Maj.) Pratt, of the Durham Light Infantry. Early in 1901 Lt. Cameron took over command of No. 1 Co.
December and January were mostly spent in training the men. Many of these knew nothing about mounted work, and had first to learn to stick on their horses (raw, untrained Argentines for the most part) somehow. However, in a creditably short time a body of useful mounted men, if not of expert horsemen, was turned out.
The 13th M. I. were first under fire at Hekpoort on 19th December, with General Alderson's column. Gen. Clements was then conducting a combined movement westwards up the Magaliesberg Valley. The Boers were eventually driven out of their Hekpoort position. The Company came under a smart rifle fire, and their led horses were pom-pomed: but they sustained no casualties and saw no Boers.
From January to April, 1901, Gen. Alderson's column was engaged on the operations under Gen. French in the eastern and south-eastern Transvaal. This column consisted of the 13th and 14th M. I., the Canadian Scouts, the Yorkshire Light Infantry, "J" Battery, R. H. A., and a pom-pom; it trekked along the Swaziland border to Ermelo, encountering very few Boers by the way. The column waited for supplies at Ermelo for ten days; but continuous rain and flooded rivers prevented the convoys coming out from Newcastle, and mutton and mealies were all that men and horses had to live on. The horses suffered severely from the lack of food, and from standing about in the wet camp. Full rations were not obtained till 26th March, more than a month later.
During April the column trekked through the difficult country between Vryheid and Zululand, arriving at Newcastle on the 20th of that month.
By this time more than half the 13th M. I. were dismounted, and the men were in rags. Gen. French's operations had cost the Boers 1,000 casualties, and the districts involved had been cleared, cattle being driven in, and sheep used for rations or destroyed. The Boer families were brought in to Refugee camps.
The 13th and 14th M. I. were remounted, and joined Gen. Bullock's column at Volksrust. The horses supplied to the Company were mostly large raw Hungarians, quite unsuited to the work.
Gen. Bullock's column, which was a large one, first trekked about the Standerton and Wakkerstroom districts, and then worked in the northern Free State, finishing up at Heidelberg in the end of July. There was no serious fighting, although every day Boer skirmishers were encountered. These would lie in wait for the scouts of the column, on the chance of shooting them at short range, and then making off. Dogs proved very useful to scouting parties: going on ahead, they would, by their actions, give warning of concealed Boers.
The men kept wonderfully fit and in very good spirits; they were just the type that Kipling describes in his poem "M. I." The horses, however, suffered severely from the cold, which was very severe, particularly at night.
At Heidelberg, Brig. Gen. Spens took over the column, which worked from July to September in the N. E. Free State. This was a very eventful time for the 13th M. I.; night marches were the rule rather than the exception. Numbers of Boers were captured, wagons, cattle and horses were brought in, and farms were destroyed. The column worked sometimes by itself, and sometimes in conjunction with others; occasionally single battalions went in different directions. The Boers had difficulty in avoiding the troops, and were deprived of their wagons, spare horses, shelters and means of subsistence, with a view to forcing them to surrender.
One occasion in particular may be mentioned. On the night of the 6th of August the column divided into two, acting in conjunction with Rimington. After a night march, a laager was surprised at dawn, many prisoners being taken.
The Company captured a number of Boers and wagons after a long gallop: they only just avoided an engagement with Gough's M. I., which was coming up from another direction.
On the 15th August Lieut. J. M. Hulton joined the 13th M. I. at Kroonstad from the 5th Bn. Royal Fusiliers, and was posted to No. 1 Co., and given command of one of the Sussex sections. He had his horse killed on the 18th, when on flank-guard, by some Boers who crept up a donga just as the scouts were moving on. He fell under his horse, but one of the section galloped back, helped him to get clear, and took the saddle on to his own horse while Hulton ran by his side.
On the 3rd September the column rode down a Boer convoy and 300 Boers. Cameron was in command of the advanced guard. Nearly all the wagons were captured, some falling into the hands of Rimington's and Wilson's columns. Many Boers were taken, and a number killed and wounded. Many of the horses of the column had subsequently to be destroyed: for the men rode over 50 miles that day, and the horses were utterly done up.
Towards the end of September Botha threatened to invade Natal, and Gen. Spens' column, with others, entrained for that colony. Gough's M. I. had suffered a serious reverse near Vryheid, the Boers being in superior numbers. Botha had then attacked Major Chapman and his small force at Fort Itala on the Zulu border, but had been repulsed after two days' most severe fighting. He afterwards stated that it was here that his power was finally broken.
The 13th, 14th, and Gough's M. I. moved out of Dundee on September 22nd, crossed Rorke's Drift, passed Isandhlwana, and hurried on to help Chapman, leaving the convoy to follow. The columns of Spens, Pulteney, and Allenby, under Major Gen. Bruce Hamilton, formed up along the Zululand border, and worked northwards through the mountainous Vryheid district; Gen. Clements coming in from Dundee.
The main body of the Boers appeared to have gone, but a number of those wounded at Itala were found in farms, and a number of fresh graves showed that Botha's forces had suffered considerably in attempting to capture Chapman with his small force and two guns.
Wagons and carts were found in the most incredible places on the slopes of mountains, and were destroyed. A good number of cattle also were captured from the few Boers looking after them. In the meantime, the convoy had such difficulty in getting up the roads that for three days it could not reach the battalion, which had to do without rations; and both men and horses felt rather done up and very empty after climbing up and down the rugged hills in the rain. Several horses were unable to get on and had to be shot, but fortunately only two of the Company's.
Gen. Spens' column reached Vryheid on the 22nd October, and, returning to Newcastle, got fresh supplies for a trek in the Orange River Colony. Standerton was reached in November, after operations along the Drakensberg.
At the end of November began the series of captures by Gen. Bruce Hamilton, made possible by the wonderful intelligence obtained by Col. Wools-Sampson. Half of Spens' column and half of Col. Rawlinson's, with the corps of surrendered Boers, made a night march of some 25 miles from Ermelo on the 4th December.
Led by Wools-Sampson's native boys, they came on a laager at dawn the next morning. Unfortunately there was not time to surround it, and another small laager beyond was warned by the firing, many of the Boers jumping on to their ponies and galloping off. However, the columns pursued and captured a good many, and all the wagons, etc., were captured. The totals were ninety-one prisoners of the Bethel and Standerton commandos, including the Landrost of Bethel, twenty wagons, thirty Cape carts, 2,000 head of cattle, and 5,000 sheep, many rifles, ammunition, etc. During the pursuit the Sussex section captured fifteen Boers, and one man killed a native with the butt of his rifle, who had just fired at and missed him.
The column now camped at the head of the Standerton-Ermelo block-house line, which was progressing at the rate of about two block-houses and one mile of barbed wire fence a day. December was spent in clearing the surrounding country. A number of Boers were brought in, and a great deal of stock.
On the 19th December, the 14th M. I. were surprised by Britz's commando at Tweefontein, while searching farms; they lost two officers and thirteen men killed, and several officers and men wounded.
The Boers were dressed in khaki, having red cloth tabs with B.S. (Britz's Scouts), and numbered some 300 or 400. It was noticed that after the fight they destroyed their own rifles, taking away those they captured, as they preferred ours. The remainder of the column, which moved to join the 14th M. I. in the morning, did not hear of the attack by the Boers in time to assist, but drove off the commando, inflicting on the Boers some few more casualties. The column moved towards Amersfort, where Christmas was spent, and then made two successive night marches (27th, 28th December), towards Tweefontein and Standerton, in which twenty-seven Boers, six armed natives and 600 cattle were captured, and forty-four Boers were obliged to surrender on the block-house lines. Some of the arms and equipment of the 14th M. I. were recovered from the prisoners.
For about six weeks the column had its headquarters at Ermelo, which became an important station at the junction of three lines of block-houses. Bruce Hamilton now had five or six columns under him, which he sent out in any direction according to the Intelligence obtained by Wools-Sampson's boys.
The night marches that ensued resulted in the capture of a great many Boers, including that of Grobelaar's laager and 100 men. The scattered pursuits that followed the discovery of a laager became very like hunting without hounds--with the added excitement that occasionally the enemy would stop to fire. Only the fittest horses were taken out, and the Boers were ridden down or driven onto lines of block-houses. The men had to act by themselves in following up single or small parties of Boers, as a column often got spread over many miles of country.
From 23rd February to 8th April the column was detached, still under Brigadier General Spens, and acted in the low veldt and the Vryheid district, also going through Utrecht and Wakkerstroom. The principal idea of this trek appears to have been to complete the clearing of those districts of cattle, and for this purpose some 200 Zulus were called for, under a chief of north-western Zululand, to assist in bringing in the cattle. The majority of the natives in those districts with whom the Boers had left their cattle were of Zulu origin, but it was difficult for the troops to sort the Boer from the Zulu cattle. This, however, the "impi" did with ease. Going out into the kraals at night, they would persuade the natives to bring in the Boer cattle themselves, as they were allowed to kill as many as they could eat; and the "impi" grew and grew until it was more than ten times its original size. By day it would trek along at a jog trot beside the convoy, the men singing their war songs; for they were not allowed to carry rifles, but only carried assegais for self-defence at night. When the column returned to the high veldt, the Zulus, though loath to do so, had to return to their own country.
The final stage of the war was now reached. It was short. The Boers that were left in the field were practically all enclosed in areas surrounded by lines of block-houses and barbed wire fences, which they themselves called "Kraals." Single men were known to have got through from one area to another, but it was practically impossible for many to do so without storming a block-house. It therefore only remained for us to sweep one area after another, and this was done by an extended line of mounted troops with its ends marching along block-houses. The block-house lines on either flank and in front of the sweeping line were strengthened by infantry trenches between the block-houses, which made them impassable by day or night; and when either of these happened to be a railway line, armoured trains patrolled the line to assist. The mounted troops remained in their column organisation, and each column was bound to keep in touch with the next by day and night, in order that every hiding place should be searched and the Boers prevented from breaking through as far as possible. By day a continuous chain of scouts advanced supported by small bodies, at intervals in rear; and mule wagons followed in rear of the centre of each column with supplies, blankets, and entrenching tools. At night a continuous line of trenches about 50 to 200 yards apart was formed, and as far as possible a continuous obstacle of barbed wire was put up in front of the trenches.
1ST DRIVE.--The 13th M. I. were always on the right of Spens' line, the 14th M. I. in the centre, and Gough's M. I. on the left. The Company being No. 1 of the 13th was on the extreme right, and consequently on them fell the onus of keeping touch with the next column through all the drives.
On 10th April the columns under Bruce-Hamilton lined up from Ermelo, through Carolina, to the Middelburg-Belfast line, and in three days' swept the area to the Standerton-Heidelberg line.
On the last night of this drive some Boers made a determined effort to get through the line, attacking Gough's M. I.; but not more than forty were supposed to have succeeded, the remainder being beaten back. The column picked up altogether ninety-five Boers out of a total of 134 captured, and a good many Boers were killed in attacking the line.
On 12th April some of the advanced scouts were ambushed by a party of Boers, Pte. Leadbetter, of the Royal Sussex Regt., being killed and two temporarily captured.
2ND DRIVE.--From the 18th--20th April the columns swept the area from the Vaal-Springs line to the Bronkhorst Spruit--Middelburg line.
There were six columns extended, the Scots Greys joining in from Springs; but the results were very small, the Boers having got through a gap between two other columns on the left.
3RD DRIVE.--On 26th--27th the line went back over the same ground, going over forty miles on the second day.
4TH DRIVE.--From the 3rd--5th May the columns swept the country from Standerton--Heidelberg--Vereeniging southwards to Frankfort--Heilbron and the main railway line, and then on in one day to the Kroonstad-Lindley line; Elliot's columns holding the Liebensberg Vlei on the left. The Boers made a great effort to break through the next column, and some 200 succeeded; but the result of the whole drive was 294 prisoners and eleven killed, which was very satisfactory after the long and arduous drive. The distance traversed on the 6th alone was over forty miles, as the crow flies, which meant a good deal more for everyone, if the unevenness of the land and the continual straining of a line some sixty miles long be taken into account. But this told more on the poor horses, which had to be sacrificed to accomplish the necessary steps for finishing the war. Officers and men not only rode these long distances, wearied by the monotony of trekking hour after hour at the walk, on tired horses, but were hardly able to sleep at night during the drives on account of the possibility of having a trench rushed at any moment, and also on account of the continual firing all along the line, everyone being ordered to fire on the slightest suspicion of Boers being in front. By this time many of the horses were considered incapable of keeping up with the line in a long day's drive, and were sent in to the railway, leaving the Company only about half its original strength. Everyone looked forward to the rest which Lord Kitchener promised us we should soon have, but we had one more drive to accomplish--the return drive to Heilbron and Frankfort, and this proved to be one of the most eventful days for No. 1 Company.
LAST DRIVE.--The drive took place on 9th May, 1902; the 13th M. I. started from Lindley, and finished at a point about twelve miles out of Heilbron towards Frankfort. Starting at dawn, No. 1 Company joined hands with McKenzie's column at 7.30, and the line halted for an hour at 10.30. The units being so weak, about four scouts per Company were sent about half-a-mile in front, and the remainder of the men extended to keep touch. The guide on the left of McKenzie's column, at the time of the halt, said he had already come a mile over his line of advance, and refused to come further; meanwhile Garratt's column on the left had gone off to their left, leaving several miles to be covered by Spens' column. The columns on the left were evidently under the impression that the majority of the Boers were opposite them, and some firing was heard in that direction on moving on again. But the Boers had chosen their piece of ground well, and it turned out to be just in the line of advance of the Company, a very few of the Boers having attracted attention by firing on the left. The scouts had just reached the top of a rise, when they saw a number of Boers cantering towards them only about 150 yards to their front. The Company was then extended to about fifty yards between men. The scouts fired, and the Boers fired with their rifles laid across their saddles; but there was no time to warn the line, in fact a low rise divided the Company, so that only some twenty men could see the Boers coming on, in a long disordered crowd, with natives leading spare animals. About ten men, immediately in front of the Boers, galloped together, forming a small group round a sergeant, and fired at the column of Boers which was coming straight towards them. The remainder of the Company came galloping in from the left one by one, and formed another group which opened fire, but not until the Boers had already passed through the line. They had steered off from the first group and cantered on, and nothing remained to be done but to pick up what they had left, as the long driving line was going further and further away. Several horses and mules were found loose; some were wounded and had to be destroyed. One man was captured with a dislocated shoulder, having fallen off his horse, and another was found in the grass, shot through the temple. About twelve rifles were picked up and destroyed, and other signs were found indicating that men and horses had been wounded.
As the Company went on to join the line, two more Boers were captured in a farm and taken on, the line arriving at its destination in driblets an hour after dark. The number of Boers which passed through was estimated at from 150-200, said to be under Mentz; they were evidently the same party that had broken through McKenzie's column on the 6th. It seemed a pity that they have got off so easily within a mile of the stronger line of McKenzie's column, but doubtless these last two experiences, with the prospect of more, influenced them in the peace meetings they were now allowed to hold without molestation.
The Column was ordered to make its way to Heidelberg, where it stayed inactive until it was broken up. On 6th August, 1902, the horses were taken to the remount depôt near Johannesburg. And on the 8th the two detachments started to rejoin their regiments.