- Boer War
taken from 'The Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiment' by
G.W.H. Peters pp. 44-55 - ISBN 0 85052 034 7]
South African War
THE BRITISH national conscience has never been
easy about the Boer War. The propaganda of those jealous of the
British Empire; the early humiliations we suffered, and the passage
of time have confused our minds as to the real issue. For this
war was fundamentally about gold. We had a case and the country
mobilized in support of it with the greatest enthusiasm.
Until gold was discovered in the Transvaal the
Boers lived in pastoral tranquility in an inhospitable country.
They had trekked there from the Cape in 1836 to escape British
rule. But when Kruger and his Government saw the vast wealth being
created in their midst they wanted a share of it. So they taxed
the miners, or Uitlanders as they called them, who had brought
brains, skill and capital to dig it out, that were almost entirely
British. Unfortunately they could not bring themselves to give
the Uitlanders political representation. The Uitlanders rebelled.
They had sufficient political and financial influence at home
to involve the British Government; also a slogan 'no taxation
without representation' which appealed, as always to the British
people. Moreover it was the Boers who declared war and invaded
British territory in Natal and Cape Province.
the hot South African sun the Bedfords take a rest on the
was the utterly unexpected and bewildering disasters of
the first three months which shook the nation's confidence.
John Bull was groggy at the knees. Ladysmith, Kimberley
and Mafeking were invested. The greatest Empire the world
has ever known had been defeated ignominiously at Colenso,
Stormberg and Magersfontein. The Boers were better led,
more mobile and their fieldcraft and marksmanship were highly
skilful. Our Army lumbered unimaginatively about in the
open, often without direction, uncertain as to the whereabouts
of the enemy and were shot down in staggering numbers before
they could come to grips with him. Each fresh humiliation
we suffered added another skip to the Kaiser's dance of
delight. Other nations, equally jealous, accused us of outmoded
and highhanded imperialism. Morale both at home and in the
field slumped to zero. The grievances of the Uitlanders
were forgotten and a feeling of guilt set in. Perhaps after
all we were acting the big bully that others made us out
The arrival of Lord Roberts at Cape Town in December
1899 put an end to indecision. Like Montgomery before Alamein,
he at once introduced purpose and organization. Like Montgomery
also, he visited commanders and units personally and lifted morale
from the boot-lace level to which it had fallen.
The 2nd Bedfords arrived at Cape Town with 12
Brigade of 6 Division on January 8, 1900. The first thing they
did in accordance with Lord Roberts' call for more mounted men
was to form two mounted infantry companies.
Lord Roberts' simple plan was to relieve Kimberley
and march on north to capture the Transvaal capital Pretoria,
a total distance of some 1,000 miles. The Bedfords were part of
the cover plan force, which drew off a superior number of the
enemy to the area of Colesberg. The first stage of the plan was
successful. For the first time a Boer General, Cronje, was outwitted
and captured. Kimberley was relieved and Bloemfontein, the capital
of the Orange Free State, fell on March 13. The Bedford Mounted
Infantry were with the cordon that surrounded Cronje, and played
a gallant part in the operation, all the officers being hit. The
stage was now set for the advance on Johannesburg and Pretoria.
The 6th Division remained in the Free State to contain the considerable
Boer forces available to cut Lord Roberts' communications with
Pretoria. The risks of this pencil-like thrust into enemy territory
were considerable. With Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking relieved
the initiative had passed to the British side. Nevertheless the
enemy were still strong and had given a very good account of themselves
in recent rather inconclusive fighting round Bloemfontein, resulting
from a pause to re-equip and re-supply. Every mile advanced now
would make the supply route more tenuous; every detachment dropped
to protect it would weaken the main body. Against this, every
step forward into what was now Boer territory increased the enemy's
panic and brought nearer an alternative supply centre at Johannesburg.
Time and morale were nicely balanced. Had the Boers made a really
determined effort to cut the supply line, or hold up the advance
by concentrating on some of the excellent tactical obstacles available
the story might have been different. But Lord Roberts was too
quick, and too enterprising. It was Kruger who lost his nerve.
On May 31, 1900 the British flag was hoisted in Johannesburg.
Two days before Kruger had fled eastwards from his capital, Pretoria,
prudently including in his baggage two million pounds' worth of
Bedfordshire Regiment Mounted Infantry eneter Pretoria. |
H. I. Nicholl's Bedford Company in the 6th Mounted Infantry
had a marvellous two months' ride, almost constantly in
action, skirmishing and probing all the way. Their main
worries were the intense cold of winter nights endured without
overcoats, shortage of food and water for horse and man,
and the sheer fallibility of their horseflesh. They scored
two remarkable firsts. They were first across the Vaal River
into the Transvaal and first to get within sight of Pretoria.
Nicholl wrote in his journal:
May 24 we reached Elysium (nothing to do with heaven,
a small village a few miles south of the Vaal River).
The main column under Lord Roberts bivouacked about three
miles from us. We commandeered a few horses from the farms
around us, and were thus able to remount several of our
men, who had been forced to walk during the past few days,
as their horses had either been shot or had died of overwork.
On May 25 we galloped north to the Vaal River, which we
reached at nightfall. We seized the drift over the Vaal.'
On June 4 after sharp fighting they topped a
rise and saw Pretoria in front of them.
'We surprised four or five Boers
in a hut as we advanced, whilst our Artillery not knowing that
we had turned the position, were bursting shells unpleasantly
near us. Night was approaching fast, and it was decided to hold
two small flat-topped kopjes (hills) about two thousand yards
from the outskirts of the town. As soon as it was dark the electric
lights in the town began to flash one by one, and a large blaze
on our left showed up the cage where the British prisoners were
confined. Two railway trains steamed out of the station away
to the eastward, but we were powerless to stop them. We were
as yet in thin air, entirely unsupported and a false move on
our part might have meant capture. One of our Boer prisoners
offered to guide us to the prisoners' cage, but it was decided
to wait until daybreak.
Besides this officers and men
were worn out with fatigue. Lieutenant Watson of the New South
Wales Mounted Infantry was sent into Pretoria under a flag of
truce to interview the authorities, and, after a long time he
returned to our post accompanied by the Transvaal War Secretary
and the Mayor of Pretoria. Colonel De Lisle, our Commanding
Officer, took them over the hills to Lord Roberts' Headquarters.
The Field Marshal, however, would discuss nothing at that hour
(it was 2 a.m. on June 5), but said he would meet both these
gentlemen at 9 a.m. at the entrance to the town, when he hoped
they would tender him the formal and unconditional surrender
of the Capital.'
The town was duly surrendered, but the defenders
rallied at Diamond Hill a few miles east. Here they put up a particularly
stiff final resistance. The Mounted Infantry rounded off a most
successful campaign by earning special congratulations for initiative
and gallantry from Lord Roberts.
British hopes that the capture of the enemy capital
would end the war were too optimistic. The next two years cover
a period of exhausting, frustrating and pointless guerrilla warfare.
Guerrilla war is a dirty business and this one left scars so deep-seated
that they can still be seen today. The Boers had the advantage
of knowledge of the country, mobility, and a friendly civilian
populace. These their leaders, particularly De Wet, in the Orange
Free State, exploited brilliantly. It was against him that the
2nd Bedfords were now to operate. At that time the vast territory
of the Free State was almost roadless. It is still mountainous,
often waterless and unproductive. The British method of campaign
was open to question. A number of garrisons were placed in loyal
towns such as Lindley, Senekal, and Winberg, and four flying columns
were organized to chase Boer commandos. This was dispersion of
force in the face of an enemy who had the mobility to concentrate
superior force when and where he wished, for example against any
one garrison at a time or one of the ponderously moving supply
columns plying between them. The British had poor intelligence
and far too few mounted troops. The flying columns lacked means
of intercommunication and their orders were rigid and given from
afar. Local commanders obeyed them when they were obviously out
of date, and showed little initiative. Time and again De Wet by
superior dash and tactics was able to escape from seemingly hopeless
and men of the Bedfordshire Regiment drawn up on the side
of a kopje during the latter stages of the campaign against
De Wet's commando. |
Second Battalion in a column under General Clements made
a poor start. To begin with, bad staff work put them in
camp at Bloemfontein on foul ground and they suffered badly
from enteric fever. The first encounter was typical. Clements
fought two inconclusive actions against a strong Boer force
and then had to break off to help the loyal garrison of
Lindley who were threatened by another commando.
they were more successful in the mountainous country east
of Bloemfontein at a place called Slabberts Nek. Here three
British columns did manage to surround De Wet's commandos.
After sharp fighting one of the Boer commandants, Prinsloo,
surrendered with 4,000 men. De Wet as usual escaped. A month
afterwards another important leader, by name Olivier, and
his three sons were captured by the combined efforts of
the Battalion and the Queenstown Volunteers. These operations
were carried out in difficult country, at the height of
a hard winter. They earned the personal congratulations
of Lord Roberts.
In an attempt to restrict enemy mobility a blockhouse
system was organized consisting of a number of forty men posts
with patrols in between. To facilitate patrolling the Battalion
formed its own Mounted Company. The blockhouse line was also intended
as a base against which our mounted troops could squeeze the enemy.
But it was too thin and weak. In November 1901 De Wet was driven
on to the blockhouse line by a mounted infantry brigade, of which
the 6th Mounted Infantry Battalion, now under Colonel Pilcher,
a Bedford officer, was part. De Wet concentrated three to four
thousand men at one spot and galloped them through. The only satisfaction
the Battalion got was the capture of two of his guns, a wagon
train and a large amount of ammunition.
In September 1901 occurred the Battalion's only
defeat. It is a good example of the Boer's ability to concentrate
and deceive. On the night of September 18, Lieutenant G. D. Jebb
and a small party left camp to round up a Boer force reported
to be fifty strong. At dawn next morning they charged this force,
put them to flight and captured their breakfast, just nicely cooked.
But the Boer party was a decoy. Jebb found himself surrounded
by two large commandos. After resisting gallantly for four hours
his party was compelled to surrender to Commandant Ackerman. Later
many of those taken prisoner escaped; others including Jebb, who
had been 'in the bag' in the fighting before Pretoria, were released.
The Boers had no facilities for holding prisoners.
Another typical, but happier incident, concerning
the 6th Mounted Infantry was the action at Grasspan, which very
nearly resulted in the capture of De Wet. Early one morning two
companies under Major S laden of the Gordons ('A' Company Bedfords
and 'D' Company Gordons) charged a Boer laager and captured 114
wagons and fortyfive prisoners. The rest of the action is recorded
in the Battalion Diary as follows:
'Hardly had the enemy disappeared
when Sladen found himself surrounded by a semi-circle of horsemen
of double his strength bearing down upon him. Sladen's position
was on a spur, at the foot of which he had assembled the captured
wagons. Just above there were some buildings in which he had
placed his prisoners. The enemy made for the wagons and some
other huts which were not occupied. Under cover of fire at a
range of less than fifty yards some of the Boers harnessed and
drove off the wagons. Sladen was pinned by a resolutely led
superior force commanded by De Wet himself.
The rest of the Mounted Infantry
Battalion were delayed at a drift and were in any case unaware
of Sladen's plight. For four hours Sladen's little force held
on and managed to keep their prisoners inside one of the huts.
Then one of Sladen's men got through to De Lisle, commanding
the Battalion, who was now about six miles away. De Lisle came
on at a gallop. The enemy fled. De Lisle pursued them and recaptured
all but two of the wagons, also 6,000 oxen, The enemy lost 100
men and some 150 horses. Our losses were five officers and fifty
This highly creditable little action is perhaps
a good note on which to end. The incidents described are typical
of countless others going on all over the country, for at their
height the area of guerrilla operations extended from deep in
Cape Province to well north of Pretoria.
Militia Battalion, who arrived in South Africa as early
as March 1900, also had a fine record of sustained service.
They were commanded by Viscount Cranborne, later fourth
Marquess of Salisbury. Their Mounted Infantry Company was
under Captain Montagu Norman, in those days a dashing leader
who won the DSO, later to wield authority of a different
nature as Governor of the Bank of England.
was not till the spring of 1902 that sheer exhaustion brought
the war to an end. British face had been saved, if only
just. Lessons were learnt which were to prove extremely
useful in 1914. White rule was established, seemingly for
ever, in a country which seems big enough when you get there,
but is in fact geographically and population-wise only a
microscopic corner of the vast South African continent.
A brief resume has been taken from the Illustrated
London News (special edition) entitled The Transvaal War 1899-1900.
"THE BEDFORDSHIRE REGIMENT
- The 2nd. Battalion landed at Cape Town ion Jan 9; was in action
with the Rensburg column on Feb. 12, when, with the Australian
forces, the Regiment held Windmill Hill until compelled, by
weight of numbers to retire. It was employed on reconnaissance
under General Clements during his advance into the Free State,
and was engaged with the enemy on mArch 12 and 20; on the latter
date at Peirmansfontein. The Regiment bore part in the fighting
near Winburg on June 24, when the Boers were driven off with
loss; and was with General Hunter during the operations near
Fouriesburg which resulted in General Prinsloo's surrender on
The 4th (Militia0 Battalion
was embodied for active service, and arrived in South Africa
on March 21. The Bedfordshire company of the Imperial Yeomanry
was in action on June 4 at Six Mile Spruit, near Pretoria, when
the Boers were dislodged from their position and pursued. A
large number of the 2nd Volunteer Battalion offered for active