Regulars and Volunteers in the Boer War

Throughout 1900 the might of the British Empire continued to mobilise and head for South Africa, and still more soldiers of Gloucestershire were with them, hurrying to join 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment in the war against the Boers. 2nd Battalion arrived at Cape Town on 21st January 1900, and a Volunteer Company of 124 officers and men from 1st and 2nd Volunteer Battalions also landed at Cape Town on 16th March, with a squadron of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars arriving three days later. On 23rd April 4th Militia Battalion landed on St Helena to guard Boer prisoners.

2nd Battalion joined 6th Division, part of Lord Roberts’ army which was soon on the march to invade the Orange Free State and Transvaal, relieving besieged towns like Ladysmith and Kimberley in the process. The march was hard and made much worse by the Boer capture of the supply train which reduced the army to short rations. Roberts aimed to surround the main Boer army under Piet Cronje and it was brought to battle and eventual surrender at Paardeberg on 27th February. But the war was far from over, and for the British increasingly took on the aspects of counter-guerrilla operations. Lieutenant Savage recalled the bravery of one of his men in an action fought by 2nd Battalion, at Driefontein, shortly after Cronje’s surrender at Paardeberg:

“Another outstanding case was a young soldier whose name unfortunately I cannot remember. He belonged to my section. We were moving towards our objective in extended order, bullets and pom-pom shells were too frequent to be pleasant, and all the time he kept murmuring the word “Mother”. We were now drawing near to our goal and the firing intensified. The order was passed – “Fix Bayonets,” then “Charge.” I could never fathom the change which came over him. Still muttering that adorable word “Mother” he charged, sometimes using his bayonet and then his magazine, into the very thick of it as though the tradition of the “Old Slashers” depended upon him. His example brought others less daring to his side until we reached the summit of the hill and victory.”

Private Dix of the Volunteer Company remembered the daily grind and occasional excitements of outpost duty in Orange Free State at Sanna’s Post (which had recently been successfully raided by Christian de Wett’s Commando) near Bloemfontein:

“You will understand the difficulties in regard to food, clothing etc. in the South Africa Campaign. Practically all the materials had to travel hundreds of miles over a single line railway to Bloemfontein, hence by Ox or Mule Convoy. Our rations consisted of biscuits, Bully and McConnachie dried vegetables. I forget if we had a cigarette ration, but I don’t think we did; but I do remember paying 5d per 5 packet of Woodbines at Sanna’s Post. We did get a ration of Flat Black Army Cake tobacco which, when one got used to it, was really good. We also had Rum Ration twice a week in the wet season, also Lime Juice twice per week.”

The Royal Gloucestershire Hussars squadron in South Africa formed “A” Company, 1st Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry. It was a matter of some concern to the officers and men that they should not be regarded as mounted infantry, but as cavalry who could fight while dismounted. It was a moot point and the Hussars found themselves engaged in convoy protection duty, raids and many minor actions with the enemy between 1900 and 1901. Remounts were a constant concern. Lieutenant Altham Graham-Clarke wrote home on 15th September 1900:

“. . . Yesterday I went to Newberry’s the Millionaire to attach his race horses for remount purposes. Mrs N. is under suspicion and being sent to Cape Town. They have a lovely house and place all furnished by Maple of the best. I have done my business, stopped to lunch; quite funny to sit down to a table with three ladies (2 girls) both been presented and they have two boys at Harrow. I have got their carriage horses pulling in a gun. I am glad you have sold the Grey and Brown Horse, we will soon get some more if ever we leave this God forsaken country. . . . All my remounts stampeded night before last and old Campbell was in a fair stew. I think I have got the bulk of them back, but it is impossible to count them on the march. I shall be quite expert broncho driving soon.”

Two days later Lieutenant Graham-Clarke saw some action, and added a postscript:

“Henry Clifford got hit late last night, but is all right; he was very weak and fainted and I stopped back with him and brought him in. The bullet went thro’ the fore-arm, but missed the bone; he bled like a pig. I and three men were within 300 yards of them. Gordon Lennox, Campbell’s A.D.C., who was with me, had his horse shot. Corporal Edwards (Glos) had his arm scratched. Bobby Golightly on his best new horse that I gave him could not mount, and I laughed like anything. Am awfully tired – have been on the gallop since 5 A.M. and now 9 P.M. I am writing this in my new waggon which I sleep in, and driven along with four horses. . . . Tell Mrs. Clifford Henry is doing A.1. and ate a good dinner last night and drank his lot of rum which did him a power of good, the first issue for a fortnight.”

At Deadwood Camp on St Helena, 4th Militia Battalion were guarding Boer prisoners, and General Cronje was there too, having recently surrendered and been taken into captivity at at Paardeberg. Captain Hobbs wasn’t too impressed, as he wrote in a letter to Captain Lovett on 12th June 1900:

“The prisoners, Transvaalers only, are an odd crew, all nationalities and ages. Most of them can talk English. All the officers are at one end of the camp, some have been let out on parole now. The O.C. troop here is a bit of an old woman and too lenient to them. Now the officers on parole are able to take out 10 of their men with them for walks. And go anywhere they please. . . .

“Cronje and his retinue live in a house guarded by the RA about 4 miles from here. He is an ugly looking beggar and pretends to understand English. He has been driven over here on 2 Sundays. When he attends, the Boer service goes on more or less all day.”

1st Battalion, reunited after the Boers freed the prisoners taken at Nicholson’s Nek, had left South Africa in August 1900 to guard Boer prisoners in Ceylon. 2nd Battalion served throughout the war, later holding lines of blockhouses and garrisoning Bloemfontein, where they were to remain until 1904. The Volunteer Company returned to England in April 1901, having served out its year of active service when it was replaced by a second Volunteer Company which remained until the end of the war. The Royal Gloucestershire Hussars left in June. 4th Militia Battalion remained on St Helena until the end of the war in 1902.
Picture: Men of the Gloucesters’ Volunteer Company at Sanna’s Post.