Boer War literature contains much information on Regular Army, Imperial Yeomanry, Dominion forces and irregular units but the general reader would be hard put to find recognition of the contribution made by the men of the Militia.
On 26th October 1899 Her Majesty Queen Victoria was graciously pleased to order the Secretary of State to give the necessary instructions for embodying all or any part of the Militia. Accordingly instructions were issued in Special Army Order dated 3rd November, republished as Army Order 203 (a) of December 1899 and by 2nd April 1900 thirty-five Militia battalions out of the forty approached to volunteer for foreign service had embarked. (1) More embodiment orders were to follow. No special inducements were offered to volunteers who received a £5 gratuity and, if wounded, came under the Pensions Acts to be treated as if they were Regular Army. (2) During the course of his evidence to the Elgin Commission Major-General H.C. Borrett, who in October 1899 had been Inspector-General of Auxiliary Forces, stated the principles upon which he called up Militia battalions for service in South Africa:
I tried to treat everybody equally and, first of all I had to be guided by strength, it was obvious that it was no use calling up a battalion that was not of sufficient strength to be sent abroad. I may mention the Devons, the Exeter Battalion, the Colonel of which came to see me a great many times asking if it was not time for calling up his regiment but I could not do it for they were not strong enough to go to South Africa. The second thing was that I tried to make everything fair; I did not then know how long the War was going on and I thought in the meantime I ought to treat everybody fairly and I always tried to call up a fair proportion of English, of Scotch and of Irish. In the first instance, when I was told to get regiments for South Africa, the order was for nine battalions for foreign service and I then called for seven English, one Irish and one Scotch. The Scotch battalion would not go so I selected another Scotch to make it fair. I was also guided by another fact that. I did not like to take too many Militia battalions from the same county. The best Militia battalions, as far as strength go, are in Lancashire and I called up a good many Lancashire regiments and sent them abroad, and there were a good many more Lancashire Militia battalions which I should have been very glad to send abroad but I did not send them because I thought it was hardly fair on the county of Lancashire. For instance there are the Manchesters, two very good strong battalions, that I did not send out because I had already sent out the Lancasters, the South Lancashires and the Lancashire Fusiliers, and so many others, that I thought it would rather dislocate trade if I took everybody from one county and nobody from another. I wanted to give everybody a fair chance and I wanted to spread the opportunity of volunteering all over England, Ireland and Scotland as much as I could. That is what guided me in the selection. (3)
During the course of the War no less than sixty battalions were to serve in South Africa. Two more, 4th Gloucestershires and 3rd Wiltshires, served on St. Helena guarding Boer prisoners; 3rd Seaforth Highlanders went to Egypt, whilst 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, 3rd West Yorkshires, 3rd Royal West Kents, 3rd Yorkshire Light Infantry and 5th Royal Munster Fusiliers went to Malta to relieve Regular battalions for active service. The 3rd Loyal North Lancashires embarked for Malta on 29th November 1899 and moved to South Africa on 2nd March 1901; whilst 3rd Royal Sussex left South Africa for St. Helena on 19th June 1902.(4) The personnel involved totalled 1,691 officers and 43,875 men. (5) In addition, 14,000 Militia Reservists served with their affiliated Line battalions. An example being those Militia Reservists from the 3rd Bn. Royal Welsh Fusiliers who, by 8th December 1899, were already serving with the 1st Bn. of Regulars in South Africa. Others went out in reinforcement drafts such as the fifteen men who sailed in the SS Gaika on 17th March 1900 and who also joined 1st Bn. RWF. These Militiamen were to fight at Rooidam where a frontal assault by 1st RWF and 2nd Bn. Royal Fusiliers forced a Boer retreat. Some Militia Reservists were to serve at home and abroad in administrative capacities not necessarily with their own regiments.(6) There was a shortage of trained junior officers which was resolved by recruiting 'suitable young gentlemen and sending them out without any training whatsoever', whilst to keep units up to strength, other ranks as young as eighteen could be sent out even though Regulars had to be at least twenty years of age.(7) Militiamen had basic training and, usually, three or four weeks at the annual camp. They were regarded as a source of reserves for the Regular Army and as second-line troops who could be sent on active service without intensive training. Whilst arguably that may have been appropriate where battle lines were clearly drawn and second line forces could be employed in the rear areas, such conditions did not apply in the open spaces of South Africa where Boer commandos moved quickly and struck where and when they spotted an opportunity. Consequently any British soldier was liable to find himself in action or required to march quickly to aid comrades under attack.
Safeguarding the lines of communication which stretched over the vast distances was a vital task. The railway from Cape Town via De Aar and Kimberley to Mafeking stretched for 870 miles. The Cape Town line via Norval's Pont. Bloemfontein and Johannesburg to Pretoria covered 1040 miles and from there ran on to Pietersburg. Lines from Port Elizabeth and East London ran west to link up with the Cape Town to Pietersburg line and in the Transvaal a line ran 395 miles from Delagoa Bay via Komati Poort to Pretoria and Johannesburg. Another one from Durban ran via Ladysmith, Newcastle and Laing's Nek for 511 miles to Pretoria and Johannesburg. (8) All were subject to attack with bridges and sections of track being destroyed or damaged. Key junctions at De Aar and Stromberg in Cape Colony required strong garrisons whilst in the immense areas away from the railway system, garrison towns such as Ermelo, a base for sweeps up to the Swaziland border, and Lindley which also provided mobile patrols and was a staging post for sweeps, required supplies conveyed by convoy. Such a convoy of, say, seventy wagons each one being drawn by sixteen oxen, was about two miles long, moved at about three miles an hour and required a considerable escort as it could be subjected to sniper fire or a sudden attack resulting in a running fight. (9) Later, as Kitchener squeezed the Boers' ability to manoeuvre, some 8000 blockhouses, covering over 3,700 miles were built and manned; each blockhouse being garrisoned by upwards of seven men. (10) All of which required large amounts of manpower which the Militia helped to provide.
Amongst the first full Militia battalions to go from Southampton on 11th January 1900 were 4th Bn. Sherwood Foresters (Derbyshire Regiment) (formerly The Sherwood Foresters Militia) and 3rd Bn. Durham Light Infantry (formerly 1st Durham Militia) who sailed in the Umbria and 4th Bn. The King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) (formerly 1st Royal Lancashire Militia) who departed in the Nile, calling at Queenstown to embark 9th Bn. The King's Royal Rifle Corps (formerly The North Cork Militia). They were followed on 16th January by 3rd Bn. South Lancashire Regiment (former 4th Royal Lancashire Militia) from Princes Landing Stage, Liverpool, in the City of Rome which called at Queenstown to embark 4th Bn. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (formerly The Royal Renfrew (Prince of Wales's) Militia. Others followed at intervals. The Militiamen of the 4th Bn. South Staffordshire Regiment (formerly (1st (King's Own) Stafford Militia) were ready to go whilst the 1st Battalion of Regulars were still mobilizing. They volunteered and sailed from Queenstown in the Arundel Castle on 12th February 1900 whilst the Regulars departed Southampton in the Aurania on 17th March. (11)
Typical of the Militia who saw front line service were 3rd Bn. The Buffs (East Kent Regiment) and 3rd Bn. The Royal Scots. The Buffs were embodied on 18th January 1900 and Colonel T.F. Brinckman with 16 Officers and 551 Other Ranks sailed from Southampton on 10th March in the S.S. Moor. They arrived Cape Town on 7th April 1900 and were sent to Betany, Orange River Colony, where they were attached to 3rd Infantry Division before moving on, firstly to Reddersburg to join the Guards Brigade and then a week later, on 16th April, to Dewetsdorp, fifteen miles south of Bloemfontein, to join Rundle's 8th Division. The following June five companies were included in the column despatched to relieve General Paget who was surrounded by Boers at Lindley, fifty-five miles away. This involved a great deal of marching and some hard fighting until Paget was relieved and the column trudged to Kroonstad. Units were then employed on L of C duty and with an armoured train travelling between Kroonstad and Heilbron. In mid-October the battalion joined General Hunter's column for a sweep in the north-west of the Orange River Colony. One company distinguished itself on 2nd November 1900 in a brisk action at Ventersburg on which Field Marshal Roberts reported in his Despatch: 'it had been hotly engaged and behaved with conspicuous gallantry'. During December, in extremely bad weather, the battalion was with General Hector MacDonald in the Springfontein area searching for De Wet until sickness reduced them to three companies who were then employed in protecting Kroonstad and Lindley. Small parties found themselves in isolated outposts as did Sergeant Pincott with six men in Blockhouse 493/1 on 8th August 1901 when they were attacked by about 250 Boers, some of whom forced their way into the Blockhouse, killed Sergeant Pincott and wounded five of the men who, in turn, inflicted such casualties on the Boers that they withdrew. (12)
The Royal Scots 3rd Bn. arrived at East London on 21st March 1900. By 13th July they had reached Kroonstad and were ordered on to Honing Spruit to join a Force which was operating against Boer commandos who had destroyed a train at Serfontein. There the battalion covered the Pioneer unit which was effecting repairs and in the following August they joined General C.Knox's column of 17th Battery RFA. 1st Bn. Oxfordshire Light Infantry, one hundred Mounted Infantry and a pompom gun to go in pursuit of De Wet. On the 17th, as Knox's advance guard, they engaged a group of Boers and dispersed them. During October they helped relieve Major-General Barton's column which was invested by C.R. de Wet's and Liebenberg's commandos at Frederickstad. In November 1900 the Battalion's M.I served with the redoubtable Major Pine-Coffin in the area round Ventersburg and during 1901 detachments served in the organised drives in the Modder River and Winburg areas, taking part on one occasion in the night attack which captured Commandant Marais and seventy-six of his Boers.
Other units which saw action included The Prince of Wales's Own Norfolk Royal Garrison Artillery (Militia) of which a Special Service Company of five Officers and 134 Other Ranks arrived at Cape Town on 27th May 1901. They were immediately split up with a detachment of thirty-six going to Beaconsfield Camp, Kimberley, for garrison duty with eight men serving on the armoured trains 'Wasp' and 'Challenger' Company HQ and the remainder took up positions at Fort Antrim, Orange River, with eight men detailed for duty with 'Bulldog' and 'Blackhatla' armoured trains. Forty men were trained as M.I. whilst one officer and fifteen men with a 15-pounder Q.F. Elswick gun were employed escorting convoys to and from Boshof which involved them in regular brushes with raiding Boers. They also acted as escort for Royal Engineers who were building blockhouses on the Kimberly-Boshof line, not exactly a hum-drum existence.(13) The Durham RGA (Militia) had a unit of fifty men serving with the garrison at Fort Prospect, Natal, when they repelled a force estimated at 400 Boers in September 1901. (14)
The two Cameronian (Scottish Rifles) Battalions had mixed fortunes. The 4th Bn. embarked on 14th February 1900 and on arrival were despatched to Kimberley Garrison. In May 1900 four companies under Major M. Johns tone served with fellow Militiamen of the 4th Bn. South Staffordshires in Paget's 20th Brigade of Methuen's 1st Division. They arrived at Lindley on 4th June, having marched some 250 miles across rough and mountainous country and were involved in fighting between there and Bethlehem. Later the Cameronians were present at Prinsloo's surrender at Slabbert's Nek and escorted 2,250 prisoners to Winburg. Three companies under Captains Mellish, Blake and Littledale served with the Kimberley Flying Column from December 1900 until May 1901 and were in action at Wachteen-Beetje, taking a kopje from the Boers at the point of the bayonet. BnHQ and units based at Boshof escorted convoys and sent foraging parties out for fodder and livestock, the M.I. unit being particularly active in that respect.
The 3rd Bn. Cameronians arrived in South Africa in May 1901 and were sent to relieve their 4th Bn. at Boshof. There they were joined by the Royal Norfolk Artillery (Militia) and a few men of the Army Service Corps; remaining at that place for fifteen months, during three of which they were cut off from all outside communication. There were not enough men to guard the existing perimeter so a complete ring of new defences had to be sited and trenches dug. Most of the Battalion were young and inexperienced as the trained men, Militia Reservists, had been taken for the Line battalions. The 3rd Bn. formed its own M.I. unit which was used on cattle guard duty, having to take their charges further and further afield as pasture was used up.
In March 1900 BnHQ of the 3rd Bn. The King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment), under Colonel B.N.North, with three companies were holding Zand River Bridge, which not only commanded the railway but was a large supply depot, drove off a determined Boer attack and received Lord Kitchener's commendation 'for gallant conduct', A unit of M.I. was formed and saw service with columns which included an action at Ventersburg and captured a Boer laager at Zeegatacht near Brandfort in May 1900. By January 1901, holding a blockhouse line on the railway from Kroonstad to Bloemfontein, they repulsed several Boer attacks and provided an armoured train unit which drove the enemy from a position at Huten Beck. By October 1901 the Battalion had been split into detachments, one of which under Lieutenant A.G.M.F. Howard engaged Theron's Commando at Ceres, Cape Colony. (15)
Royal Engineer Militia units were also engaged, serving mainly with the Regular R.E. in bridge-building, railway construction and repairs, and blockhouse building. In March 1900 the Royal Anglesea R.E. (Militia) and Royal Monmouthshire R.E. (Militia) each sent a Special Service Section of one officer and twenty-five men to be attached to bridging companies. The Royal Anglesea Section was attached to the Ladysmith Relief Force and later worked on railway repairs between Ladysmith and Standerton before moving on to erect bridges for General French's Force in SE Transvaal and going on trek with columns under General Smith-Dorrien and Colonel Campbell. In June 1900 both Anglesea and Monmouthshire despatched further sections of three officers and 100 men for service on the railways and blockhouses with a detachment of the Anglesea unit being beseiged in September 1900 at Schweizer Reneke. (16)
The last complete Militia battalion to sail was Colonel the Duke of Montrose's 3rd Bn. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Twenty-five Officers, one Warrant Officer and 899 Other Ranks sailed from Southampton on 1st February 1902 in the Canada. On arrival they were immediately split up with companies being sent to De Aar, Fraserburg, Sutherland and Simonstown on garrison and blockhouse duty as well as railway patrols. The Duke took command of a column covering the blockhouse line from Carnarvon to Calvina and the battalion was not united again until they sailed from Cape Town in September 1902. (17)
These necessarily brief accounts, selected at random from regimental histories and other sources, indicate the Militia's active and worthwhile role in the war. Yet it was to be the last occasion when Militia battalions would take the field. Implementation of the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act, 1907, resulted in the conversion of remaining units into the Army Special Reserve. Whilst the name 'Militia' was later to be revived to describe the Supplementary Reserve, in 1953 the title and its associations were to slip quietly away into obscurity.
Sources and Notes
1. Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Military Preparations and Other Matters Connected with the War in South Africa. (Cd. 1789) London 1903. (The Elgin Report). Minutes of Evidence Vo 1. p220 para. 5256.
2. ibid. Minutes of Evidence Vol. 1 p.233 para. 5306.
3. ibid. Minutes of Evidence Vol. 1 p.220 para. 5255. ~
4. ibid. Appendix 15 pp.161-2.
5. ibid. Report p.63.
6. Hay, Colonel G. Jackson The Constitutional Force Newport, Gwent 1987 pp. 8 and 183.
7. Elgin Report: Minutes of Evidence. Evidence given by Major-General H.C. Borrett pp. 220-1 paras. 5255-5661.
8. The Times War Map of South Africa.
9. Cowper. Colonel L.I. The King's Own. The Story of a Royal Regiment 1814-1914 Oxford 1939. Vol. II Ch. XL
10. Evans, Martin Marix Encyclopedia of the Boer War 1899-1902 Oxford 2000 p.25.
11. Shipping references are from The Times and Liverpool Daily Post.
12. Knight, Captain CRB Historical Records of the Buffs (East Kent Regiment) 1814-1914 London MCMXXXV p.593-4.
13. Hay, Colonel G. Jackson The Constitutional Force, Newport, Gwent 1987 p.213.
14. ibid, p.203.
15. Cowper, Colonel L.I. The King's Own. The Story of a Royal Regiment 1814-1914 Oxford 1939 Vol. II Ch. XI and Hay, Colonel G Jackson The Constitutional Force, Newport, Gwent 1987 p245.
16. Chatham, Sir CM History of the Corps of REs Vol.111. Chatham 1993.
17. Hay, Colonel G Jackson The Constitutional Force, Newport, Gwent 1987 p.419.