Imperial units

Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry

The 2nd Battalion sailed in the Formosa on 5th November 1899, and arrived at the Cape on the 29th. For two months it was on the lines of communication on the western border. Two companies of the battalion took part in Colonel Pilcher's successful raid from Belmont to Douglas and Sunnyside, when a laager and 40 prisoners were captured. The Cornwalls did a splendid bit of marching. The remainder of the column, chiefly Queensland and Canadian Mounted Infantry, were mounted. When Lord Roberts arrived at Modder River in February 1900 the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, along with the 2nd Shropshire Light Infantry, 1st Gordons, and the Canadian Regiment, formed the 19th Brigade under Major General Smith-Dorrien, and were during the advance from Modder River to Bloemfontein, and some weeks longer, part of the IXth Division under General H E Colvile,—the other Brigade, being the 3rd or Highland, under Major General Macdonald.

According to Lord Roberts' despatches the first marches of the IXth Division were as follows: 13th February, the IXth Division proceeded to Ramdam; 14th, to Waterval Drift; 15th, Waterval to Wegdraai; 16th, evening, to Klip Kraal; on the 18th were fighting the battle of Paardeberg. A splendid record of very hard work.

General Colvile's 'Work of the IXth Division', gives an account of the doings of the division from its formation on 11th February 1900 till the 31st March, the day of Sannah's Post. Before the next big movement northwards took place the IXth Division was broken up, and although General Colvile retained the rank, staff, and attributes of a divisional commander, he had only the Highland Brigade, some artillery, and a few horse. Criticism is here out of place, but if one were permitted to make a suggestion to General Colvile for future editions, it might with reason be said that he is too sparing of dates. Too often expressions such as "next morning", "next day", and others like these, appear, and it is impossible to say what day of the month is referred to. This is noticeable early in the record and leads to uncertainty; indeed there is difficulty in reconciling his dates prior to Paardeberg with those in the despatches. To some extent this is explained by the fact that the two brigades did not march together on certain of the days. However, both bivouacked on the south side of the river close to Paardeberg on the night of the 17th.

On the morning of the 18th Colvile found that the Boers were in and about the river-bed on his left front, their main laager being on the north bank, and that on his own right front were the Vlth Division under Kelly-Kenny, which had been in the front of the advance from Modder River. Before six o'clock Colvile had resolved to take at once the greater part of his division to the north bank, but the river was found to be too high at that particular time. About six o'clock he ordered Macdonald to clear some scrub near the river, but shortly afterwards Lord Kitchener requested that the IXth Division should reinforce Kelly-Kenny. Macdonald at once marched to the right, then turning to the left, was soon in action. The Boers continued to push through the scrub and down the river in strength. Colvile then, with Lord Kitchener's approval, gave his attention to this part of the field, the west and north-west portion of the Boer perimeter. By nine o'clock the 7th company Royal Engineers had made the passage of the river possible, and the 19th Brigade and 82nd Battery were across by 10.15 am and the turning movement well developed. A somewhat lengthy quotation from General Colvile's book seems not out of place: "Smith-Dorrien sent the Canadians to work up the river-bank; their right forming the pivot of the movement and their left joining the right of the Shropshires, whose left in turn touched the right of the Gordons. The latter were accompanied by the 82nd Battery, and their objective was a knoll commanding the scrub at the river's bend, which I have noticed before. This knoll — Gun Hill, as we called it — was occupied by the Shropshires soon after eleven, the Gordons still swinging round to prolong the line to the left, and by four o'clock Smith-Dorrien was well round two sides of the scrub". After speaking of the splendid advance of the Highland Brigade on the south side —"a very fine feat on the part of the Highlanders, and one of which they will always have reason to be proud"— Colvile says that the Canadians having cleared the north bank for some distance, three and a half companies of the Seaforths and two companies of the Black Watch crossed to the north side and then pushed on to within 200 yards of the Boer trenches. While Smith-Dorrien was still fighting round the scrub, higher up "rushes were made at it from time to time but without result. At about one o'clock Kitchener came to me and asked if I had got any fresh troops to spare for a more determined assault. I told him my only reserve was half the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, guarding the transport, and he said this half-battalion must cross over and rush the position. He asked Ewart to lead them across, and told him what he wished done. I therefore sent for Colonel Aldworth commanding the battalion, and told him the chief of the staff's wishes, and on hearing from him that his men were about to have their dinners, put off the advance till they had done, for it did not strike me as a task to be undertaken on an empty stomach. Guided by Ewart, they started at about half-past three, and crossed the river at the point where the Seaforths had done so in the morning, and then extended to the left. They were joined by the Canadians and the four Seaforth companies, and creeping steadily on till within 500 yards of the enemy, charged forward with a ringing cheer. 'By Jove! they've done it', somebody said at my side. And I own I, too, thought they had; it seemed as if nothing could stop them. But the fatal moment came for them as it had come for others, and when within 200 yards of the enemy those that were left had to halt Aldworth, gallantly leading them, was killed, and the casualties in his half-battalion were over 22 per cent. The Canadians also suffered heavily; their percentage of casualties that day was double that of either of the other two battalions, but I do not know how many of them were due to this charge ... This effort practically ended our work for the day".

The losses of the Cornwall Light Infantry on the 18th were 3 officers killed — Colonel W Aldworth, DSO, and Captains Wardlaw and Newbury — 4 officers wounded; 12 men killed and 55 wounded.

On the 19th Smith-Dorrien found that the scrub which had been so tenaciously held on the previous day had been evacuated, and he was able to push forward a considerable distance. From the 19th to the 27th he worked closer and closer to the Boer position. On the night of the 21st the Shropshires made what General Colvile calls a "fine advance" to within 550 yards of the Boer trenches. The following night they endeavoured to shorten the distance but failed, and the spade had now to be relied on. It is worth while quoting the last act from the general's account. After explaining that he had come to be of opinion that an entirely new trench on our side had to be started: "It seemed to me that if we could once gain the ground clear of the trees we should have the laager at our mercy. I knew Lord Roberts was very averse to trying an assault, so got hold of General Elliot Wood, his chief engineer, and went through the trenches again with him, with the result that he, too, thought that no further good could be done with the present trench. Fortified with this expert opinion, I went to Lord Roberts, explained the situation, and got his leave to try an advance that night. It was the turn of the Canadians to occupy the trench, and therefore obviously theirs to make the assault. After talking over the details with Smith-Dorrien, it was settled that the assaulting party was to consist of half a battalion of that regiment, formed in two ranks, the rear one with their rifles slung and carrying intrenching tools: in the rear rank, too, were to be about thirty men of the 7th company Royal Engineers, under Colonel Kincaid. The orders I gave were that they were to creep forward from the trench in the darkness till the enemy opened fire, and then to begin digging as hard as they could. The Gordons were to support them in the advanced trench, and in another, a couple of hundred yards down-stream, while the rest of the 19th Brigade, extended to the left, was to open fire, so as to convey the idea of an attack in force and prevent the Boers concentrating all their strength on to the little assaulting party. At 2.30 on the morning of the 27th February the party, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Buchan, Royal Canadians, left the trench, moving steadily forward, shoulder to shoulder, feeling their way through the bushes, and keeping touch by the right. At 2.55 they were met by a terrific fire from a Boer trench, which later measurement proved to be only 60 yards in front of them. The right companies, under Captains Macdonald and Stairs, got cover under a little fold of the ground by falling back about 20 yards; but the slight undulation which favoured them brought the French company on the left to the level of the Boer fire, which, owing to the darkness, was rather high. The result was that before they could gain comparative shelter, some 30 yards back, their commanding officer, Major Pelletier, was wounded, and they had suffered rather severely. The trenching-party then set to work about 10 yards in rear of the front rank, which lay in the open for nearly two hours at 80 yards from the enemy's trenches, keeping up so hot a fire at the flashes from the Boer lines that firing from the other side grew wild".

When Cronje saw the new trench completed such a short distance from and enfilading some of his own, he apparently decided that further resistance was useless, and at dawn surrendered.

The 19th Brigade, hastily thrown together, had done one of the most telling bits of work in the whole war.

At Poplars Grove, 7th March, Colvile's division, with Henry's Mounted Infantry and three naval guns, had charge of that sphere of the action which lay on the left of the main advance and to the north of the Modder. The Highland Brigade under Hughes-Hallett, who had temporarily taken Macdonald's place while the latter was in hospital with the wound he got on the 18th, were on the right, next the river, the Canadians for a time working with them; while farther to the left Smith-Dorrien's other three battalions moved round the north side of a hill called Leuwkop, the extreme left being protected by Henry's mounted men. The fighting was not severe, the Boers bolting and leaving one Krupp gun on the kop, which the Shropshires secured.

At Driefontein on the 10th the IXth Division only came up at the finish. On the 13th Bloemfontein was occupied. Five officers and 10 non-commissioned officers and men of the Cornwalls were mentioned in Lord Roberts' despatch of 31st March 1900.

After the entry into Bloemfontein Broadwood was sent east towards Ladybrand. Pressed by a superior force, he was compelled to retire towards Sannah's Post (see Household Cavalry). On 30th March Lord Roberts sent for General Colvile and ordered him to march at dawn next morning to Broadwood's assistance. The IXth Division marched at 5.30 on the 31st. At Springfield General Colvile heard that Broadwood was in trouble beyond Boesman's Kop. The general galloped ahead to find out the truth, got to the kop about 11 am, and ascending the hill at the suggestion of Colonel Martyr, who was already on the summit, saw that Broadwood's fighting was over, and that the enemy were removing the captured convoy and guns. It was noon before the division got to the kop, and to pursue the enemy with infantry tired after a twenty-two miles' march, Colvile decided as out of the question. He contented himself with taking Waterval Drift on the Modder and holding a position there for the night. The Cornwalls crossed on the extreme left below the drift, turning the Boer position on a little hill beyond. The Highlanders crossed at the drift proper. General French with his cavalry arrived next day, but deciding that a pursuit would be fruitless, the whole force retired to Bloemfontein. So ended Sannah's Post. The event has some bearing on the history of the IXth Division, as probably but for Broadwood's mishap the division might never have been broken up. There seems to be no real ground for believing that any blame could be attached to Sir Henry Colvile or the IXth Division in connection with the loss or non-recovery of the guns.

On 3rd April Colvile was ordered to take the division towards Leeuwkop, eighteen miles south-east of Bloemfontein, as there was thought to be a Boer gathering there. The division marched on the 4th, but returned without being engaged. This was the last work of the IXth as a division. On 23rd April, when the next move was made, the 19th Brigade was put under Ian Hamilton, and only the Highland Brigade remained with Colvile. On 25th April Ian Hamilton, with Ridley's Mounted Infantry, the 19th Brigade, and twelve guns moved eastwards from the water-works towards Thabanchu. The first serious opposition was encountered at Israel's Poort, a very strong position and strongly held. An excellent account of the action which followed, as of all the work of this force, is to be found in Mr Winston Churchill's 'Ian Hamilton's March'. When the strength of the Boer position— a horse-shoe with long sides — was ascertained, the Canadians and Grahamstown Volunteers advanced in very extended formation and lay down about 800 yards from the enemy. The Mounted Infantry, leaving the left rear, set out for the outside of the shoe, to outflank the Boer right, while the other three infantry battalions worked along the inside of the same ridge. In four or five hours the Boers got nervous and fled. Thabanchu was occupied the same evening. On the 26th General French arrived with his cavalry and took over the command of the whole force. On the same afternoon there was some indecisive fighting north of the town, after which Kitchener's Horse had some trouble in rejoining the main body. On the 27th there were great expectations of enveloping the Boers. Towards that end Gordon's 3rd Cavalry Brigade struck to the right and Dickson's brigade, Ridley's Mounted Infantry, and Smith-Dorrien to the left; but Gordon found himself barred by an impregnable position, the result being that Dickson, who had pushed far in with the 4th Cavalry Brigade, found himself opposed by some 4000 Boers and had considerable difficulty in getting clear again. Net result, the Boers got away the same evening.

On the 28th Ian Hamilton got orders to move north in conformity with the army of the centre. Early on the 30th the column, consisting of the 19th Brigade, Ridley's Mounted Infantry, and the 81st and 82nd Batteries, moved north. The Boers were found in another strong position at Houtnek. Their centre and left were beyond Hamilton's strength; their right, consisting of Thoba Mountain to the west of the pass, was a strong position but weakly held. Kitchener's Horse gained a footing on the mountain, and two companies of the Shropshires, the 1st Gordons, and four companies of the Canadians were sent to support them. The Cornwalls guarded the rear, and the remainder of the Shropshires made a feint against the enemy's left. In the afternoon the enemy, realising the importance of Thoba, threw reinforcements on to it; but, thanks to a splendid stand made by Captain Towse with a small party of Gordons and Kitchener's Horse, our people were able to hold on till darkness, and then lay down on the ground gained. Early on 1st May a half-company of the Shropshires seized the Nek proper, and also held on under heavy loss.

Reinforcements opportunely coming to Ian Hamilton, he was able to send some cavalry out on the flank to weaken the Boers' hold before an assault. As usual in all operations after Paardeberg, this had effect, and when the infantry advanced the enemy made for their horses. On the 2nd Bruce Hamilton's 21st Brigade,—the Sussex, Camerons, Derbys, and City Imperial Volunteers, with Broadwood's 2nd Cavalry Brigade, — the Household Troops, 10th Hussars, and 12th Lancers,— P and Q Batteries RHA, the 76th EFA, and a section of 5-inch guns, joined Hamilton and made the army of the right flank a very handy force, and one which was fortunately under leaders who made no mistakes.

On 3rd May Hamilton advanced to Jacobsrust, and on the 4th a very smart affair occurred. On the right front a strong Boer force was seen with twelve or thirteen guns. Far on our left appeared another strong body intent on joining their friends. Broadwood, quite recovered from Sannah's Post, rushed for a ridge between the Boer forces, and "with two squadrons of the Guards Cavalry and two of the 10th Hussars seized it". Kitchener's Horse hurried up in support. The enemy tried to retake the hill, but failed and fled. On the 10th the Zand River was crossed by the whole army,—Hamilton's people, especially the Camerons and Sussex, having quite a smart action before the hills on the north bank were cleared and the baggage transported. Ventersburg was occupied the same evening. Hamilton's army then moved inwards, drawing close to the centre at Kroonstad on the 12th. On the 15th they moved off again, and Lindley was occupied on the 18th. On the 20th the march was recommenced, and a rear- or flank-guard action was fought in which a company of mounted infantry suffered heavily. On the 22nd Heilbron was taken and a score of waggons captured by Broadwood.

Lord Roberts, judging that some attempt would be made to hold the difficult country to the south and south-west of Johannesburg, ordered Hamilton to cross the centre and become the army of the left flank. On the 24th this movement was accomplished, and two days later Hamilton crossed the Vaal. On the 27th he gained touch with French, who had been swinging out far on the west or left front. On the 29th, within sight of the Rand chimneys, was fought the fiercely contested battle of Doornkop or Florida. As the 1st Gordons did the most of the fighting, it will be pardonable to speak of the action in greater detail under their heading. The 19th and 21st Brigades, acting with Smith-Dorrien, did splendid work. The position was not one which could be turned. French had not been able to get round: besides, the absolute want of provisions made it an imperious necessity that not a day should be lost, hence a frontal attack had to be tried. The troops rose to the occasion, and a magnificent success was scored. A failure would probably have encouraged the enemy to hold on to Johannesburg and the capital more tenaciously than they did.

After Pretoria was occupied the 19th Brigade was taken from Ian Hamilton, and with their brigadier were employed on the line between the Vaal and the capital. On 10th July Smith-Dorrien was ordered to rail the Shropshires and Gordons to Krugersdorp to collect supplies, but ten miles from that town the enemy was found to be too strong, and Smith-Dorrien had to return to Krugersdorp, in which neighbourhood he operated for some weeks. The Cornwalls were for a time at Irene and afterwards at Derdepoort. At the end of August the battalion was taken east to Middelburg, remaining there till 1st December, when they were despatched to the Piennaar's Poort district. In July and August 1901 they furnished four companies for Major General Beatson's column. In August the battalion was taken to the unhealthy Koomati Poort valley, and they remained in that district and at Barberton till the close of the war.

In Lord Roberts' final despatch 10 officers and 17 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned, and in Lord Kitchener's final despatch 5 officers and 4 non-commissioned officers were mentioned.

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