DCM VR (22054 Dvr: W. Robertson. R.F.A.);
QSA (6) CC TH OFS RoK Tr LN (22054 Dvr: W. Robertson, 7th Bty., R.F.A.) officially impressed naming but file marks overall;
KSA (2) (22054 Dvr: W. Robertson. R.F.A.)
DCM London Gazette 8 February 1901: ‘For gallant conduct at the Battle of Colenso, 15th December , in attempting to extricate the guns of the 14th and 66th Batteries.’
The Heroes of Colenso
Buller and his Staff proceeded to Natal where a force of 20,000 troops and five Field Batteries awaited, the intention being to cross the heavily defended line of the Tugela River and advance to relieve Ladysmith. Hildyard's 6th Infantry Brigade supported by the 14th and 66th Batteries of IV Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, and six Naval 12 pounder guns under Colonel Long, Royal Artillery, held the centre of the British position. The objective of 15 December was to cross the Tugela by the bridge at Colenso and dislodge the Boers beyond the river. Colonel Long, who had been responsible for the disaster to an armoured train a month before, had a theory that artillery was most effectively used at close quarters, or, in his own words, 'the only way to smash the beggars is to rush in at 'em'. Early in the action Long employed his theory bringing his guns into a dangerously exposed position not more than 1000 yards from the enemy. ‘To see those 18 gun teams riding out far ahead of the infantry battalions supposed to screen them, was to return to some scene from Balaklava.’ No sooner were the guns unlimbered than an enemy shell burst among them hailing the onset of a continuous and murderous fire. After half an hour of firing on the Boers at Fort Wylie both Batteries had run short of ammunition and the little they had left was kept to cover the expected advance of 6 Brigade. Casualties had been severe and nearly all the officers including Colonel Long were wounded. The surviving men and officers withdrew to take cover in a donga to the rear of the position, leaving their guns exposed and unattended.
Shortly afterwards Buller and his Staff appeared on the scene, having heard the guns supposedly in support of Hildyard's Brigade were out of action. The Boers recognising the Staff in an unusually forward position trebled their fire, but Buller, unperturbed, finished his sandwich and ordered the immediate recovery of the guns. From the surrounding group of officers emerged 'one of the most gallant trio's that ever tried to win the Victoria Cross'. They were Captain Harry Schofield, Captain Walter Congreve of the Rifle Brigade, and Lieutenant the Hon. F. H. S. Roberts, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, only son of the Field-Marshal. The narrative which follows is in the words of Schofield himself and is taken from his pocket diary:
‘....we went back to the donga where all the horses and drivers were, which was under a hot fire and the General personally tried to get some of them (men and horses) out to try and recover the guns but there were no officers there; so General and Congreve (RB.) and self set to work to get some out and we got 2 teams and a corporal and hooked in the teams to limbers just in front; doing this was no easy matter as it was rather difficult without N.C.O's to get men on foot to come and help to hook in; Gerard was coming out when I shouted to him to send me a man or two to help; we got the teams hooked in somehow, I forget how (except I saw Congreve doing his) and then I started off at a gallop with the limbers for the two guns on the right and Roberts, 60th, joined in; also Congreve came on tho 'I did not find this out till after; the impression I had going on was galloping on a carpet spotted thick with spots, it was a very hot fire; after we had gone about 400 yards young Roberts on my left was shot and fell backwards, he had just before been looking at me and smiling, waving his stick in a circular motion like one does one's crop sometimes when one goes away from covert, thinking to have a good burst; Congreve tells me he himself was shot just before this and also his horse and the latter plunging badly, threw him; so the Corporal and self were left. When on the way, I saw the lead driver of the right guns riding very wildly; I shouted to him to keep his horse in hand, which I think took them off thinking of the bullets, as it did me a little; on getting to the guns I howled out 'wheel about on your guns', which they did quite splendidly, as if on parade; Corp. Nurse and self jumped off our horses and ran to hook on the guns, I found mine rather too far off to drag up alone so told the Corporal to come and help me, which he did and then he put his own gun on which was just in the right place; while he was doing this my wheel driver turned round and said 'elevate the muzzle Sir', which I did; they all kept their heads most admirably; we then mounted, galloped for the centre sunken road running across the far donga and I left them in a place of safety some way behind; after crossing the Donga a spent bullet hit me on the thigh, only a tap and didn't leave a mark. Corporal Nurse, drivers Henry Taylor, Young, Potts, Rockall, Lucas, Williams, all of the 66th battery were not touched; 3 or 4 horses got hit; luckily not enough to make them falter or we should not have got off that particular plain I think. The corporal and drivers behaved most admirably and no doubt if they had bungled in their driving on to the guns we could not have got out, they were nailers.’
Congreve had crawled into the donga to seek shelter and later went out to bring in Roberts. He eventually remained in the donga with the other wounded until the Boers, who took the position, allowed their evacuation. A second attempt to recover the remaining guns was mounted by Lieutenants Grylls and Schreiber of the 66th Battery but their efforts were unavailing and both officers were killed.
Having heard of the failed attempt to retrieve the guns, Captain H. L. Reed, 7th Battery, R.F.A., which had been on the far right of the battle supporting the Mounted Infantry Brigade and thus far been largely unscathed, knowing full well the danger and of the failed attempt already made, volunteered to take a party of 13 volunteers from his battery to make a third attempt to save the guns. Aware that the British would be loath to suffer the humiliation and indignity of leaving guns behind on the battlefield, the Boers concentrated fire on the veldt between the donga and the remaining ten abandoned guns. Reed's party rode into a barrage of rifle and shell fire, 13 of their 21 horses were killed before the party got half way to the guns. Driver Nugent was killed and Captain Reed, Corporal Clark and Drivers Robertson, Wright, Felton and Ayles wounded before Reed ordered the futile attempt abandoned.
Driver Woodward, one of Reed's party of volunteers gave an account of their futile attempt to save the guns, “We had been fighting hard from 6 o´clock in the morning until the evening, endeavouring to move the enemy from a very strong position which they held. Try how we would, we could not move them, and I daresay that if we had been in their position we could have stood against half the world. Well, they captured a dozen of our guns and our commanding officer [Captain Reed] asked for volunteers to endeavour to recapture them. It was a fine sight to see the hands go up. There was no hesitation... When we started we were under shellfire but none of us got hit. But in galloping out of the line of fire, the horses got their legs over the traces, and so we had to stop in a big ditch under cover. At last we got the horses legs free and then we had the order to gallop up to the guns and hook in. We had no sooner got out of the ditch than the Boers opened fire with their rifles and killed nine horses and two men and wounded five men. The lead driver and wheel driver of my team were shot. The horse I was riding was shot in four places, and my other horse was hit in two places. We were mowed down like corn, but we kept on... Myself, I only sustained a few scratches, but the number killed was appalling. When I saw the lead driver knocked off his horse by a bullet, I got off, put him on his own horse, unhooked him, and let him gallop away without getting wounded any worse. General Buller happened to see me and said I behaved most splendid. He said he hoped I should always be as lucky as to come out of such a heavy fire without getting hurt. He sent down to our Battery for our names and numbers. For gallantry I was presented with the Distinguished Conduct Medal. On the 1st of April we had a special parade, and General Clery pinned the medal on my breast, hoping that I should live long to wear it. I sent it home by the next mail for safety, and I can assure you, I feel very proud indeed.”
Eventually Buller, resigning himself to the loss of the guns, forbade any further attempts. Later, he went to the survivors of the abandoned batteries and personally thanked them for their gallantry.
Captain Reed was awarded the V.C. for his attempt to save the guns whilst all 13 volunteers from 7th Battery, Corporals Clark (wounded) and Money, Bombardier Reeve, Drivers Woodward, Robertson (wounded), Wright (wounded), Hawkins, Lennox, Nugent (killed), Warden, Felton (wounded), Musgrove and Trooper Ayles (wounded), received the DCM.
For any interested member
Awarded to "4559 William Frederick Strong" of E Coy., TMI. Served from 10/1/00 to 31/3/01. DCM for Rooikoppies, MiD'd by General Buller 9/9/00. Submitted to the King, 18/4/01 and twice in LG. Also awarded QSA with seven clasps. Info from Droogleever's "Thorneycroft's Unbuttoned".
DCM Ed VII (2194 Clr:-Serjt: R. Smerdon. 2nd Devon: Regt.);
IGS 1895 (2) Punjab Frontier 1897-98, Tirah 1897-98 (2194 Sergt. R. Smerdon 1st Bn. Devon: Regt.);
QSA (4) CC Drie Joh DH (2194 Sgt. R. Smerdon, Devon: Regt.);
KSA (2) (2194 Serjt: R. Smerdon. Devon: Regt.);
Army LS&GC Ed VII (2194 C. Sjt: R. Smerdon. Devon Regt.)
DCM London Gazette 27 September 1901: ‘Mounted Infantry, 1st Battalion, Colour-Sergeant M. [sic] Smerdon, Devonshire Regiment.’
MID London Gazette 10 September 1901.
Richard Smerdon was born at Torquay, Devon, in 1871, and enlisted into the 1st Devonshire Regiment on 28 October 1888, having had prior service in the 3rd Battalion. He was promoted to Corporal in December 1892 and to Sergeant in May 1897. He served with the 1st Battalion with the Tirah Expeditionary Force in 1897-98 (Medal with 2 clasps), and was posted to the 2nd Battalion in in April 1899. He served with the 1st Mounted Infantry in South Africa from 20 October 1899 to 21 May 1903, being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in September 1901 (Queen’s medal with 4 clasps, King’s medal with 2 clasps). Awarded the L.S. & G.C. medal in 1907, he was posted to the 6th Battalion in July 1908, and was on home service throughout the Great War, being promoted Company Sergeant-Major and appointed Acting Regimental Sergeant-Major in January 1915. He was discharged in the rank of Temporary R.S.M. on 16 January 1920.