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On the Fringes of Buller's Army No.5 Squadron, Natal Carbineers Natal Front

Introduction

For the Natal Carbineers, the Anglo-Boer War spotlight has usually fallen on the thoroughly documented Siege of Ladysmith. Less familiar, but equally interesting, are the adventures of the regiment's only squadron to evade the siege. These men, mustered as mounted infantry, were sought after as scouts and fighters with Genreral Sir Redvers Buller's Relief Column. They were in the saddle almost continuously, and personalities such as Duncan McKenzie, William Park Gray and David MacKey established reputations as outstanding Carbineers of their day.

Part 1: Under Siege

The Natal Carbineers were mobilised on the night of Friday 29 September 1899, with those signing on only for the duration being termed 'Special Service' men. By 1 October the regiment had mustered at Ladysmith, with the exception of No. 5 Squadron, detached to Colenso to assist in the patrolling of this most likely route south for Boer commandos. Troopers from the scattered rural districts of Weenen, Gourton and Springfield had to ride up to 60 miles in response to their call-up instructions.

While October at Colenso was quiet in terms of major actions, a crisis was approaching as British forces retired from Dundee, and Carbineers patrols were kept busy. Carbineer days began at 4.30 am with reveille, followed by two scouting patrols - at 10 am and 3.30 pm - often in stifling heat and intermittent thunderstorms. One three-day expedition penetrated as far afield as Springfield in the Upper Tugela region - an area of future operations. On the 31st reinforcements arrived in the form of 100 Dublin Fusiliers and a Natal Field artillery (NFA) battery equipped with antiquated muzzleloaders. The overall commander was Colonel C.D. Cooper of the Fusiliers.

Thursday 2 November, the day the Boer siege closed on Ladysmith, saw a flurry of activity in Colenso. Major Duncan McKenzie assumed command of the Carbineers squadron from Lieutenant David MacKay, a local farmer. McKenzie, a Nottingham Road farmer and staff officer, had returned hurriedly from a holiday in Englnad, intending, futiley as it turned out, to rejoin his squadron in Ladysmith. During the day there were several clashes with Boer burghers in the hills north of the village (Grobelaarskloof), and artillery bombardment of the camp. As the river was low and Boer encirclement seemed likely, McKenzie urged immediate retirement on Estcourt. The NFA departed Colenso by road at 9 pm on the 2nd, with wo of McKenzie's Carbineers as guides. On this occasion those elected did not enhance the regiment's reputation for scouting - they managed to get the NFA thoroughly lost and on the road to Weenen instead of Estcourt. The balance of the infantry arrived in Estcourt on the evening of the 3rd, to find the settlement in "a great state of excitement", with the small military camp converted into a "a regular sea of tents." (1)

Estcourt's 'siege', though brief, was nerve-racking and uncomfortable. Many civilians left by train and most stock driven south. No. 5 Squadron formed part of the about 300-strong mounted component of a woefully inadequate garrison of some 2300, their job complicated by the vulnerable location of the village in a hollow surrounded by hills. Artillery at Ladysmith was clearly audible, and gun flashes visible from hilltops at night. Perverse weather conditions, typified by intense heat, freezing nights and heavy rain, made life miserable. Troops turned verandahs and vacant stores into barracks when tent-towns were blown down or flooded. One observer described the situation as having "all the discomforts of India, without the conveniences commonly at hand in that country." (2) Also in camp was the Natal Royal Rifles (formerly the Maritzburg Rifles), the Carbineers' infantry compatriots from Pietermaritzburg.

There was little cause for optimism and a Boer attck was anticipated at any time. During November early morning stands-to-arms, pickets and patrols were punctuated by several minor skirmishes. On Saturday the 18th, for example, boers in considerable numbers approached to within plain sight, and a brisk engagement took place on the immediate outskirts of the village near the Little Bushman's River Bridge. These events sowed alarm and on a few occasions preparations were made for flight. The value of colonial mounted infantry reconnaissance at this time can be gauged by the lack of reliable maps. Incrredibly, during November officers were presented with copies of a map, minus contours, found in the local library. (3)

A daily highlight for Eastcourt locals was the armoured train reconnaissance towards Colenso, though without a mounted escort, an ambush was considered inevitable. At about 8am on the morning of Wednesday 15 November Corporal william Park Gray and a four man Carbineers patrol was breakfasting on the Weenen road when they heard firing from the direction of Chieveley. Passing coments on the obvious, they headed leisurely back to base where a 100-strong relief contingent (including 40 Carbineers) was preparing to depart for Ennersdale. Near the little Bushman's River Bridge this contingent encountered the battered engine and tender, with the wounded survivors of the ambush. In the vicinity of Ennersdale the right flank fo the pursuing Boers was engaged. Three casualties were inflicted on the enemy, but despite McKenzie's tactical dispositions on such occasions, which emphasised patrols on both flanks, the outnumbered force was itself outflanked and forced to retire on Estcourt under cover of a fortuitous thunderstorm. It had been the squadron's first substantial engagement, and one of the equipment deficiencies noted was the limitations of their single-shot weapons, either the Martini-Metford or Martini-Enfield (possibly both). Command of the Estcourt garrison at this point (11-15 November) was in the hands of Colonel Charles Long, later to earn dubious fame at Colenso.

The armoured train ambush became a cause célèbre partly due to the capture, and subsequent escape, of the aristocratic young 'Morning Post' correspondent, Winston Churchill. Earlier in November Churchill and Park Gray had planned another adventure that would have been typical of the adventurous streak in both. Soon after his arrival in Estcourt Churchill announced a reward of between £200 and £250 to anyone who could smuggle him into besieged Ladysmith. This was a perfect challenge for local boy Gray, who was also the squadron's top scout and marksman. The plan fell through, though, when Park Gray's application to McKenzie for leave was rejected. Interestingly, the considerable sum offered by Churchill - and the implied difficulty in penetrating the Boer siege lines - does not tally with several newspaper reports of black runners arriving in Eastcourt with mail and intelligence from the town (4)

Shortly after the armoured train incident, between 17 and 24 November, Estcourt's defenders faced the final crisis of this brief siege, this time to the south in the direction of Willowgrange. Patrol activity in the area, and th eabsence of a concerted attack on the sparsely defended settlement, suggested a Boer intention to bypass the garrison and sever communications with Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith style. Highlands Station on the Natal Government Railway (NGR) line was duly captured on the 20th and the telegraph line severed the next day. On the 17th the first of several half-hearted expeditions departed Estcourt for Willowgrange to challenge the Boer move. Carbineer records recall a cold, wet night spent at Willowgrange Station in anticipation of one aborted attack on Boer positions.

At about 2pm on Wednesday 22 November the Natal Carbineers escorted a force out of Estcourt in the only serious effort to dislodge the commandos. That night the Carbineers, ably directed by McKenzie himself, helped manhandle the chief supporting artillery, a naval 12-pounder, up the north-east shoulder of Beacon Hill, the initial British objective. It proved a nightmarish exercise as the area was lashed by several furious thunderstorms (including hail) which left their mark, literally, on the Carbineers. The squadron played no direct part in the bungled, though minor setback to British arms. It had been McKenzie who had suggested a night attack on Boer-occupied Harris Hill. One critical battlefield feature, a stone wall linking the Boer and British positions, was intented by McKenzie to guide the troops to their target, ensuring surprise and probable success. Instead the wall constributed to the major mishap of the attack when coloumns advancing on either side mistook each other for the enemy.

McKenzie's second recommendation - artillery support to consolidate anticipated gains the next morning - was also not forthcoming. To cap it all for McKenzie, the service, as guide, of a local farmer, Frick Chapman, was dispensed with at a critical point. The following day the unfortunate Chapman was shot by a British Tommy who mistook him for a Boer, probably on account of his slouch hat. Despite the likelihood of such accidents, McKenzie rigorously resisted efforts to persuade the Carbineers to replace their slouch hats with colonial-pattern helmets.

By 9am on the 23rd a Boer counterattck forced British infantry off Harris Hill, which had been occupied despite the previous night's mishaps, and led to a retirement on Estcourt, shepherded by the Carbineers and other mounted infantry. On the 24th the Estcourt garrison braced itself for the anticipated Boer bombardment following the setback at Willowgrange. To everyone's amazement, the burghers lost their nerve and retired to the Tugela in two columns, to the East via Weenen and to the west via Ntabamhlope Mountain. Estcourt's mounted garrison wree denied several opportunities to disrupt the withdrawal of both columns. The then commander of mounted troops, Colonel Martyr, appeared intent on rather 'guiding' the Boers back to Colenson. The Carbineers joined an immediate advance to Frere.

Part 2: With the Relief Column

Following the 'Relief of Estcourt' the Estcourt-Weenen Squadron joined Buller's push to relieve Ladysmith. The squadron became a component of a 450-strong Composite Regiment within Lord Dundonald's Mounted Brigade. Much of the Composite Regiment's subsequent success can be attributed to a successful partnership struck up at this time between McKenzie and a recently arrived Major Hubert Gough, who later commanded the British 5th Army on the Western Front during world War I. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Gough was an adept student of local conditions and the mountd infantry tactics of scouting and harassment. In his memoirs he acknowledged that he had learnt more in one day with colonial mounted infantry than in 10 years with regular cavalry. (5) He added that the former "moved in bounds, like wild animals carefully approaching their prey, and this has now become the classic method of advance for scouts." (6) It was some time before the British Army made serious efforts to duplicate such tactics. In fact, despite a generally busy scouting schedule during the Relief campaign, the Composite Regiment was noticeably under-utilised on two major occasions, Spioenkop-Vaalkrantz in January 1900 and the final breakthrough at Colenso a month later.

On 11 December the Carbineers escorted Dundonald on a reconnaissance of Colenso, where McKenzie pointed out the Boer trenchline, then under construction. Was it typical of general British Army disdain of colonials that no apparent use was made of this intelligence, with catastrophic consequences in the forthcoming battle? The disastrous progress of the Battle of Colenso on 15 December is thoroughly documented; the Carbineer's role, though relatively minor, was the squadron's first major test (their involvement in the actions at Ennersdale and Willowgrange being more on the scale of skirmishes). The Composite Regiment participated in an assault on Hlangwane Hill on the British right flank. The intention was to dislodge the Boers there and subject their compatriots in the Colenso koppies ot enfilade fire. Their opponents were the 800-strong Wakkerstroom and Standerton Commandos. The Carbineers contingent was temporarily under the command of Lieutenant MacKay again, after McKenzie was reluctantly attached to Dundonald's staff for the day.

The dawn assault was an immediate disaster. The small force, exposed on open ground, was swept with fierce volleys from short range. Four Carbiners died instantly and six were wounded - the severest casualties of the Relief campaign. The dead were Troopers B.W. Warren, Peter Adie, H.N. Jenner and David Gray. Gray was a cousin of the celebrated William Park Gray, and also his half-section. With the exception of Gray, who had enrolled in 1895, the Carbineer careers of these men was brief; Warren having joined scarcely a week earlier, on 4 December. Among the severely wounded was Lieutenant Mackay, struck by a bullet that passed through his cheeks just below the eyes. Nineteen-year old Trooper Frederick Charles Farmer, of the Weenen Troop, rescued his officer under heavy firre, earning a Victoria Cross recommendation from Buller. This application was unsuccessful, as had been a previous application, for Trooper W.W. Barker, during the Anglo-Zulu War. Sergeant Quentin Smythe was finally to secure the coveted decoration for the regiment during World War II. According to Farmer's service record he did receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) fo rhis action. This was apparently the only such award to a Natal colonial during the Victorian period. (7) McKay, for his part, made an amazing recovery and rejoined the squadron on 21 February 1900. He commanded the regiment from 1911 to 1920.
On the following day, 16 December, a truce was declared to allow both sides to attend to their dead. The Carbineer fatalities were buried, in shallow graves, on the eastern side of the NGR line, three miles from Colenso. Lord Dundonald recalled that "when the curtains of the first ambulance were drawn back, a vast cloud of blue flies came out and ... a fearful smell was blown by the light wind towards us." (8) Sixty-five years later, on 24 July 1964, 85-year old William Park Gray presided over the reinternment of these same men at the nearby Clouston Military Cemetery. The regiment revisited the site on several occasions after the war, with bivouacs held at Colenso in 1904 and 1911.

Until 10 January Buller's army licked its wounds at Chieveley. The only substantial action occurred on 20 December when a 22 strong patrol, led by an attached officer, Lieutenant Silburn, ambushed Boers at Hussar Hill, a strategic feature of southest of Colenso. The action was in apparent retaliation for the vandalism of the bodies of dead Hussars at the site. Several further reconnaissances in strength were conducted, most notably at Colenso on 6 January, on that occasion partly to relieve pressure on the defenders of Wagon Hill in Ladysmith.

At dawn on Wednesday 10 January 1900, the squadron departed a wet Chieveley en route for the Upper Tugela where Buller planned his next assault on the Tugela Line. The initial objective of Dundonald's 2000-strong brigade was a still intact masonry bridge over the Little Tugela River at Springfield, a tiny hamlet of three houses. The Composite Regiment remained there for a day beforere joining the advance at Trichardt's Drift over the Tugela. Here a bridgehead was to form an element of a complex plan to breach Boer defences. Dundonald's men crossed on the 17th at a point downstream of the main crossing. The site chosen was far from perfect, with the river bed strewn with boulders, a sharp bend in midstream and deep water on eithe rside. Carbineers negotiated the river with little difficulty, some swimming alongside their horses with kit tied to the top of the saddle. However, the crossing turned into a nightmare for several members of the 13th Hussars and 1st Royal Dragoons, whose heavy chargers lost their footing and were swept downstream. Most of their riders washed up safely on a shallow bank, but one man was drowned and two rescued by Carbineer troopers David Gray Sclanders and Fred woods. A memorial plaque was erected at the site, and Sclanders rewarded with the Royal Humane Society's Silver Medal - certainly the only Carbineer ever to receive this award.

That night the squadron bivouacked on the riverbank, and on the following day joined a reconnaissance in strength towards Acton Homes, west of Spioenkop. At some point during this reconnsiassance - precise time and location is not specified - Carbineer scouts reported on unsuspecting Boer column (surely a rarity) advancing along a track towards a nearby efile between two kopjes. The Carbineers and Imperial LIght Horse (ILH) squadrons, both under McKensiz'e command, won a spirited eight kilometre race for the kopjes, where they deployed for an ambush in textbook fashion. According to Gray it wa a "perfectly executed manoeuvre... dismount, link, horses, and lie down below the skylinne." (9) The initial volleys emptied several saddles, but most of the stunned Boers had the presence of mind to wheel their ponies and flee. The balance, about 50 strong, put up a plucky defence until British reinforcements compelled their surrender. Though little more than a minor skirmish, the engagement was elevated to the status of a major battle by some contemporary historians, and was trumpeted as the first success to attend the arms of the Relief Column to that date.(10)

A notable feature of the engagement was a disputed white flag incident. Appriximately an hour into the action a white flag apparently appeared on the Boer right flank, but a colonial ceasefir ewas greeted with renewed Boer gunfire. Sources, however, are confused on this point, and probably the offending flag was either hauled down immediately or not seen by the majority of burghers present.

On 20 January the Composite Regiment was withdrawn from the Acton Homes vicinity, and Dundonald reprimanded for exceeding his authority during the reconnaissance of the previous few days. Apparently excessive British caution during the Relief campaign was typified by General waren's reluctance to pursue the possiblitiy of a breakthrough to Ladysmith, at Acton Homes. The Natal Carbineers played no direct part in the abortive attacks at Spioenkop and Vaalkrantz in January and February. As previously mentioned, the relative inactivity of the colonial mounted infantry during this period betrayed a continuing British neglect of the tactical worth of this arm. This factor, coupled with the several 'easy' escapes of Boer forces, caused considerable frustration. Gibson, an historian of the ILH, commented bitterly that the colonials were, "condemned to picnic in the orchards on the banks of the Tugela." (11)

Part 3: Relief of Ladysmith - Carbineers First In

On 9 Febraury 1900 the Eastcourt-Weenen Squadron returned to Chieveley, escorting artillery and covering the left flank of the infantry columns returning from the dismal Spioenkop 'excursion'. Hubert Gough assumed command of the Composite Regiment at about this time. On the 12th the squadron revisited Hussar Hill as part of a reconnaissance in force preparatory to the recapture of this strategic feature, essential to British plans to force Boer positions along the Hussar Hill-Cingolo-Monte Criso axis. Boer-held Cingolo was reconnoitred on the 16th, and on the following morning the position was successfully assaulted. The commandos had failed to fortify the position with their usual thoroughness, considering it unlikely that an attack would be launched on its steep, rock-strewn and thickly-bushed slopes. It was on this occasion that the Carbineers sustained their only casualty outside the Battle of Colenso. He was Trooper Mark Goldstein, who had only enrolled on 10 January. Dundonald's brigade was complimented by Buller on their performance, and participated in a similar operation against Monte Cristo on the 18th. After the Monte Cristo engagement, Buller doubled back towards Colenso, crossing the Tugela south of the village. On the 20th-21st the Carbineers found themselves back at their old nemesis, Hlangwane, observing the right flank of the redirected advance. The brigade took a backseat during the infantry battles for strategic features such as Wynne Hill and Hart's Hill, spending several days (22-24 February) amidst rain and shellfire. At Hart's Hill the Carbineers were honoured with an impromptu inspection by the Russian military attaché, Lieutenant -Colonel Jolshin.

At dawn on the 27th the Carbineers bestirred themselves with a special enthusiasm as news of British success at Pieter's Hill was received. The breakthrough to Ladysmith had finally been achieved. 28 February, a Wednesday, saw the Boer forces in full retreat, and was to end as one of the most memorable days in the regiment's history. The brigade moved forward through the debris of the previous day's battle and a hastily abandoned laager near Pieter's Station. On this day Gough's Composite Regiment spearheaded continued aggressive reconnaissance that saw the leading elements reach Bulwana mountain in the early evening. Gough had found his route blocked by numerous pockets of resilient Boer riflemen covering the general retreat, but a troop or two on the enemy's flanks usually forced a retirement.

When Gough found himself, almost unexpectedly on the outskirts of Ladysmith, he was determined to proceed despite Dundonald's cautionary instructions to the contrary. At about this point, Gough was presented with the delicate matter of rivalry between the Cargineers and the ILH (under Captain Bottomly), both of whom had comrades besieged in the town, over who would have the honour of being the first to enter. McKenzie considered making a solo dash, apparently even ordering his men to jam a narrow defile to prevent the ILH passing. The matter was resolved when the two squadrons were formed into half-sections and rode in abreast. It was a thrilling moment, though probably a more dignified one than was depicted in the contemporary press. Most apparent to the fit, well-mounted relief force was the emaciated and fever-stricken appearance of the besieged.

Following the obligatory speeches, the squadron retired to the regiment's lines, and Gough joined General White for dinner. McKenzie and Bottomly received orders to parade at first light on 1 March, to pursue the retreating boers. However, the state of the garrison, and Buller's continued emphasis on consolidation rather than pursuit, instead led to two months virtual inaction. The Composite Regiment rejoined the Brigade at Nelthorpe, south of Ladysmith. On 7 March, before the Squadron's departure for a well-deserved month-long recuperation at Highlands, near Estcourt, their brigade commander for the previous three months, Lord Dundonald, paid them a glowing tribute: "You belong to a regiment whose reputation stands high, and you have done much to cover it with honour. For the time I have commanded you, you have done much hard and dangerous work, but I have never feared that, however difficult the task set you perform, and however dangerous that task, it would be well-accomplished; and were I intending to join any regiment, and were it open to me to choose, I would prefer to join the Natal Carbineers." (12) The reunited regiment remained at Highlands until 5 Apirl. Here they were rested and refitted before joining Buller's advance into Northern Natal.

Conclusion

The Relief Campaign provided an ideal, though difficult, research opportunity to assess the campaign performance of a single Carbineers squadron. The five months in question (October 1899 to February 1900) in fact constitue the bult of the regiment's Anglo-Boer War service. In this relatively short period the Estcourt-Weenen Squadron was able to successfully demonstrate, to a critical audience of correspondents and British army regulars, the crucial importance of intelligently deployed colonial mounted infantry against a skillful and mobile enemy. Regrettebly, it also became apparent that throughout the campaign the skills typicified by the Natal Carbineers were not consistently employed to full advantage.

Footnotes

(1) 'The Natal Witness', Monday 6 November 1899

(2) Louis Creswicke, 'South Africa and the Transvaal War', vol. II (1900) p.28

(3)Bennett Burleigh, 'The Natal Campaign' (1900), p.85 and 87-88

(4) 'Natal Witness', Wednesday 8 November and Saturday 18 November 1899, and Monday 1 January 1900.

(5) Hubert Gough, 'Soldiering On' (1954), p.66

(6) Ibid, p.67

(7) Gazetted in 'The Times', 8 February 1901

(8) Lord Dundonald, 'My Army Life' (1926)

(9) William Park Gray typescript, Natal Carbineer History Centre, p.5

(10) Creswicke, 'South African and the Transvaal War', vol. III, p.99; Maurice, 'History of the War in South Africa', vol II (1900), p.359

(11) Gibson, 'History of the Imperial Light Horse in the Anglo-Boer War' (1937), pp.149-150

(12) 'Natal Volunteer Record' (A Natal Mercury Publication, 1900), p.155

Reproducted from ‘Soldiers of the Queen' issue 79, December 1994

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