The Border Scouts were raised at Upington in May 1900 as a local defence force, and in September all the white troops in the district were withdrawn to Prieska. The men were all half-castes, chiefly descendants of Boer farmers and native women; many of them were well-to-do farmers having large herds, others were hunters in the Kalahari Desert. All could ride and shoot. Their knowledge of the country and excellent eyesight made them invaluable as scouts. In November 1900 the regiment was increased to 300; in January 1901 to 500; and shortly afterwards to 8 squadrons —total, all ranks, 786. The north-western district of Cape Colony, which the regiment patrolled, extended from Oomdries Vlei on the south to Rietfontein on the north, a distance of 400 miles; and from Prieska on the east to Ookiep on the west, about 350 miles. Kenhardt and Upington, two towns about the centre of this vast area, were garrisoned and entrenched. These towns are seventy-two miles apart over heavy sandy roads, and on one occasion in June 1901, when a Boer force threatened Upington, 2 squadrons of the regiment covered the distance in sixteen and a half hours, and after a short halt moved out on the 25th to meet the enemy, 250 strong, under Conroy, who, after a fight lasting all day, was completely defeated. The Border Scouts captured all Conroy's waggons, spare horses, ammunition, and some prisoners. Lieutenant Beresford of the regiment was killed, and 2 men wounded; 3 Boers were buried in the morning. On 8th July there was further fighting, when the Scouts lost 3 men killed, and Captain C Tabuteau and 3 men wounded. The enemy now fled into Griqualand West, and the north-west district remained quiet for many months. A troop of the Border Scouts were long stationed at Prieska for scouting and despatch-riding.
The distance between Upington and De Aar is just over 300 miles, from which railway junction all supplies had to be drawn—a big undertaking when the convoy required an escort of 300 or 400 men to bring it safely through; and the convoy was of little use when it arrived, as the escort had consumed half the stuff on the road out, and wellnigh the other half was required by the escort when taking back the empty waggons. The officer commanding the Border Scouts frequently requested to be permitted to live on the country, in the same way as the Boers did, and thus do away with convoys and transport, but this was not allowed.
In April 1901, 300 of the regiment were ordered to join Major Jeudwine's column at Van Wyk's Vlei. These 3 squadrons remained on column for seven months, for the last three of which they were under Colonel Capper. During the whole time they did most of the scouting for the main body, and a day seldom passed without the advance or flanking scouts being fired on by the enemy, who, however, fled as the column advanced. Some very hard and trying marching was done, but the rebels generally kept a day or two's march in advance, and owing to its transport the column could not move as fast as the enemy. The 6th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers was in this column, and in their war record it is noted, to illustrate the difficult nature of the country, that on 28th May only six miles were covered in nine hours' marching. Occasionally the waggons were left behind, and the mounted men—1 squadron of Orpen's Horse, 1 of Nesbitt's, and 3 of the Scouts—would, by a long night-march, try to surround the enemy. Twice Maritz was all but surrounded in very hilly country, but on each occasion he and his men escaped with the loss of a few men and all his spare horses.
At Ganabosch the column fought the combined commandos of Maritz and Louw; the enemy held some high ridges until dark, and then fled. In November 1901 the Border Scouts were ordered to return to the north-western district, as several commandos had moved north. On this trek they had a running fight with Van Reenan's commando, but owing to the horses being in a miserable condition only two prisoners were captured. They arrived in Upington in December, after having been as far south as Piquetberg Road Station. On one occasion they had been snowed up for three days in the hills near Sutherland.
The regiment received no pay during the time it was on column, and Major Birkbeck (4th Scottish Rifles), the commander, found on his return to Upington that all communication between that place and De Aar had been cut for several months. The wire was down for miles, and post-carts had been captured by the enemy, while there was hardly enough food for the garrison for one month, apart from the civilian population; lastly, there were not twenty pounds of money in the town. Meat rations became the order of the day, and remained so until the corn ripened at Keimeos, on the banks of the Orange, thirty miles from Upington. At this time there were about 600 rebels under arms in the district, while several commandos were being pushed into it by the columns in the south. On one occasion at this time 60 Border Scouts, under Captain Bracy Ramsbotham, DSO, did a good piece of work. They had gone out to get sheep, and, hearing of the enemy, they succeeded in ambushing a party of 80 Boers under Conroy. The enemy fled, almost after the first volley, being completely surprised. They left 15 dead and 8 severely wounded.
The regiment not having drawn any pay for many months, and the authorities stating it was impossible to get money safely through, Major Birkbeck decided to make his own money. A block stamp was cut out of wood to represent a jackal, as that animal's skin was worn on the men's hats. Underneath was written, "Issued by Paymaster Border Scouts, pay to Bearer"; then signature, John Birkbeck, Major, OCBS. The notes were issued for £5, £2, 10s, and 2s on cloth, and as few of the men could read, ink of a different colour was used for each value. Cloth, like everything else, began to run out, so that in the end blinds, bed-sheets, and table-cloths were commandeered and torn up to make into money. £45,000 worth was issued and in circulation. It was the current coin of the district, the Post Office and Savings' Bank accepting it. The Civil Commissioner used it, while the traders took it or gave it as change. The notes were not redeemed until after peace was declared. Many were cashed far from the district; for example, the Standard Bank alone cashed many hundreds at Cape Town, and a few were presented even in Natal.
In January 1902 General Smuts came into the district to organise the Boer forces: he had the commandos of Maritz, Latagan, Conroy, and Louw. The Border Scouts were now divided as follows: 350 at De Aar for convoy duty, 50 at Prieska, 150 at Kenhardt, and a like number at Upington. The only other troops at these last two towns were Native Town Guards, each 100 strong, armed with very old rifles, mostly useless. Conroy seized this opportunity to reap the harvest at Keimeos, for the ripening of which Upington had been wearying. News came that he was cutting the wheat and building trenches on the kopjes. He had with him about 100 men. The same evening Major Birkbeck marched for Keimeos with 100 of the Scouts mounted on half-starved horses. He arrived at Keimeos while it was still dark; dividing his force, he crept up the kopjes occupied by the enemy. At the first sign of dawn Captain Tabuteau shot a Boer who stood up within a yard of where he himself was hiding, and in a few seconds it was found that Boers and Border Scouts were lying mixed up amongst the rocks. No one could move an inch. Unable to move, both parties lay still all day, and when it was dusk orders were shouted to the Scouts to fix bayonets and be ready to charge: a previous signal had been arranged and a place to reassemble fixed. The latter signal having been given after dark, and the Scouts having reassembled, some men were sent into the village of Keimeos: they found that the Boers had fled. Captain Tabuteau remained out with 50 men, the others returning to Upington; 3 Boers were buried on the following morning. The Border Scouts lost 2 mortally wounded, and 20 others slightly wounded. The regiment now brought in and stored at Upington 1500 sacks of grain—a task which could not have been accomplished but for the marvellous scouting which prevented all interference with the working-parties or enabled them to beat off the attacks. Much has been heard lately of the qualities needed in scouts. A British officer who served with this regiment says that the men could always tell whether distant dust was made by ostriches, springbok, locusts, or mounted men, and never made a mistake in their judgment. If a party of horsemen had passed over the road they could roughly estimate the number, and could tell how many horses were ridden and how many led. They travelled by night as easily as by day, always going straight across country and never on the track. Not a waggon of any sort accompanied the regiment, the blanket being under the saddle and an overcoat strapped in front. They carried no cooking-pots nor food, as when on trek they only used meat. Spare ammunition was carried on horses.
The regiment's record is one of which they had every reason to be proud. They lost 1 officer killed and 1 wounded, 19 non-commissioned officers and men killed and over 100 wounded, but not a single man ever surrendered, although many times an unwounded man lay by a wounded comrade till dark. Not a single despatch rider was caught, although several got in only on wounded horses or on foot. These despatch riders had to cross from Kenhardt to Upington and Prieska once or twice a week, often on starved horses.
Curiously enough, no man of the regiment died of disease.
The Mentions gained were—
LORD KITCHENER'S DESPATCHES: 8th July 1901.—Captain J B Ramsbotham and Lieutenant Beresford behaved gallantly in repulse of Boer attack on patrol near Kenhardt, Cape Colony, May 17, 1901. Captain J B Ramsbotham and Lieutenant H H Hodges, near Kenhardt, Cape Colony, June 25, for good leading in attack on Boer position. Sergeant Major Bowers, Sergeants Whitfield and Adamson, gallant conduct at Naroegas, Kenhardt, May 17; mentioned in Army Orders.
8th August 1901.—Corporal Carl Barries, promoted Sergeant. On July 8, a small party of scouts being engaged with very superior force of the enemy, by his coolness and good shooting prevented the party from being surrounded, and saved the life of his officer by killing two Boers who were shooting at him at close range.
23rd June 1902.—Captains E F M'Sheehy, C Tabuteau; Sergeant Major G Panizza; Sergeants Muller, R van der Cllff.
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