South African units

Cape Mounted Rifles

This fine corps is the regular military force of Cape Colony. They were at one time in the pay of the Imperial Government, but since 1870 the Colony has borne the expense. The men engage for five years, and are regular soldiers. General Sir E Y Brabant, in an article in the 'Monthly Review', sketched the history of the Cape Mounted Rifles. In another article in the 'Nineteenth Century' he used the expression, "They are grandly trained soldiers". On 13th October 1899 the corps numbered 924, all ranks, with a full supply of horses and eight guns; they saw service in many districts, but it was perhaps in the Queenstown-Dordrecht country, in December 1899 and January 1900, that their services to the Empire were of greatest, nay, inestimable value.

Major Pollock, in his 'With Seven Generals in the Boer War', mentions that on his arrival at Queenstown, about 6th November 1899, the garrison was a Naval Brigade with two 12-pounders, four companies of the Berkshire Regiment and their mounted infantry company, sundry detachments of Cape Mounted Rifles, Cape Police, and Volunteers. The CMR had also their battery of six 7-pounder muzzle-loading screw guns as well as a battery of maxims. "A couple of days after my arrival it was my good fortune to witness the detraining of a detachment of the CMR, who formed a most valuable addition to our little force. I never saw a more workmanlike body of men. Smart, active fellows, in the prime of life and evidently in a most satisfactory military condition. The discipline seemed to be excellent, and the men the most willing workers that it is possible to imagine ... The Cape Mounted Rifleman is a first-rate fighting man and a downright good soldier all round. The corps has but one fault, so far as I could judge, and this is that the officers are in many cases far too old". The history of the corps throughout the war proved that Major Pollock's praise was well bestowed. The British regular officer has a weakness for young officers, but in a campaign with an enemy so wily as the South African Dutchman it was fortunate that a corps should have a large proportion of officers who had lived long enough to acquire a little of the serpent's wisdom. More than one British officer has remarked to the writer that for all the qualities which make for the most perfect efficiency in a fighting unit, discipline, intelligence, endurance, pluck, and skill in all the tasks of a soldier, they had never seen anything to beat the CMR.

Early in November the corps watched the passes about Barkly East. On 22nd November the CMR and their guns and maxims went to Putter's Kraal. In a few days General Gatacre sent some of the CMR and Brabant's Horse to Penhoek, east of the Queenstown-Stormberg railway. Neither of these corps was in the actual engagement at Stormberg on 10th December. It will be remembered that in General Gatacre's despatch of 19th January 1900, regarding his defeat, he said: "160 Brabant's Horse and 235 CMR with four 2.5-inch guns should have started from Penhoek, but did not arrive at Molteno owing to the failure of the telegraph clerk to transmit the message handed to him at midnight on the 8th". The presence of the Penhoek force would have been very valuable, particularly if they had attacked from the east or Boer rear. Brabant's Horse, 160, arrived near Molteno on the afternoon of the 10th and scouted back some distance towards Stormberg on the line of the British retreat. The CMR, having their guns, could not travel so fast.
After Stormberg there was no big engagement in the eastern portion of Cape Colony, but the mounted troops in that district had many skirmishes and some hard-fought little actions. On 24th December the CMR occupied Dordrecht, and there was frequently fighting in that neighbourhood, as on the 30th when a party under Lieutenant Milford of the Frontier Mounted Rifles were cut off and had their horses all shot. The detachment held their ground splendidly, inflicting considerable loss on the enemy, until they were rescued next morning by Captain de Montmorency, VC, with some of his own scouts and Brabant's Horse and 115 men of the CMR On 31st December Dordrecht was evacuated, the CMR falling back on a position at Bird River.

In Lord Roberts' first despatch, that of 6th February 1900, he said: "A subject which from the first attracted my special attention was the development and organisation of the Colonial forces, of which I was inclined to think that sufficient use had not been made. I, therefore, arranged for one mounted corps to be raised by Colonel Brabant, to whom, with the approval of the High Commissioner, the rank of Brigadier General has been given. Inclusive of this corps it is intended to place a body of Colonial mounted troops, about 3000 strong, under Brigadier General Brabant's command, on Lieutenant General Gatacre's right flank for the purpose of guarding the eastern portion of the colony and pushing back the enemy from the neighbourhood of Stormberg. The headquarters of this Colonial force will be at Dordrecht, where it will be in readiness to operate northward towards Jamestown".

On 7th February there was some fighting in which Brabant's Horse drove back the Boers, suffering a few casualties. In the despatch of 28th February 1900 Lord Roberts said: "On the eastern frontier Brigadier General Brabant moved forward on the evening of the 16th February, and after continuous fighting on the 17th stormed the Boer position near Dordrecht". Brabant's force included the 79th Battery RFA, Cape Mounted Rifles, Brabant's Horse, Kaffrarian Rifles, Queenstown Volunteers, and a portion of the 1st Royal Scots. Brabant lost little time and kept the enemy moving, and while Lord Roberts was driving the force in front of him across the Orange Free State, Brabant pushed his opponents northwards through Labuschagne's Nek to Jamestown, and thereafter cleared them out of all the positions in the Aliwal North district of the Colony, but not without some determined fighting, as on 5th March when the CMR had 7 killed and 9 wounded, and on the 11th when 2 men were killed and Lieutenant Taplin and 9 men were wounded. On 2nd April Colonel Dalgety left that town to occupy Wepener and to command Jammersberg Drift and bridge over the Caledon River. Colonel Dalgety arrived at Wepener on the night of the 4th, and on the 5th the troops under his command were one company Royal Scots Mounted Infantry; CMR, 427; 1st and 2nd Brabant's Horse, 804; the Kaffrarian Rifles, 393; Driscoll's Scouts, 58; with a few Royal Engineers and the Artillery Detachment — 93 — of the CMR, with two 15-pounders, two naval guns, two 2'5 guns, and one Hotchkiss. A position, about six miles in circumference, was taken up. On the 6th it was seen Wepener was to be isolated, and defensive works were pushed on. On the morning of the 9th the enemy opened with artillery. In his report Colonel Dalgety said: "The weakest part of the position was on the extreme left rear, which was held by the Cape Mounted Rifles, and it was here that the heaviest casualties took place, the CMR losing 21 killed and 75 wounded, out of a total of 33 killed and 133 wounded". Colonel Dalgety gives an account in his report of the fierce attacks made by the enemy, especially on the position occupied by the CMR. He said that "it was found to be impossible to contract our lines or to give up any-portion of the position held, so that I had no reserve available for relief, and consequently for sixteen days and nights the whole force was constantly in the trenches, and in the case of the Royal Scots, CMR, and Scouts, they had nothing but cold food and water during the whole sixteen days, while for three days the trenches were flooded by rain. I cannot speak too highly of the behaviour of the whole force during all this time; all did their work cheerfully and well, although the continued strain was telling on all ranks". He brought forward the names of a number of officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of this corps [Report of Colonel Dalgety, dated 20th April 1900]. Wepener was relieved on the 24th April. During the siege Major Springer, Lieutenant Taplin, and Sergeant Major Court, and about 20 non-commissioned officers and men were killed; 7 officers and about 70 non-commissioned officers and men wounded.

There are few more gallant pieces of work recorded in the history of the war than the splendid defence of Wepener, and the Cape Colony soldiers and volunteers will always be able to point to these as gold-letter days in their records.

Brabant's Colonial Division moved north from the Wepener district in May and operated at first on the extreme right flank of the British advance, being out on the right of General Rundle after Thabanchu was passed. The division was afterwards split up, and a portion came to the west or Senekal part of Rundle's line. They frequently had most onerous work and stiff fighting, but the despatches barely do justice either to their operations or to those of the VIIIth Division. All through June and July there was constant skirmishing and some very severe marching, with the view of containing the Boers until Sir Archibald Hunter got Prinsloo and about 4000 of his men surrounded in the Brandwater Basin, where they surrendered on 30th July. When Sir Archibald Hunter entered Fouriesburg on 26th July he found to his surprise that Driscoll's Scouts of the Colonial Division were there before him "after a forced march from Commando Nek of 25 miles".

On 16th July De Wet with about 1600 men broke out of the Brandwater Basin, and Broadwood with the 2nd Cavalry Brigade went in pursuit. Other troops joined him, and De Wet then made for the Reitzburg Hills, south of the Vaal, where he remained for about three weeks. On the 27th July the Colonial Division was taken from Rundle's district and marched via Kroonstad to the Rhenoster River to watch the drifts there. On the night of the 6th August De Wet with his force crossed the Vaal, and the Colonial Division followed, and joining Lord Methuen, who had been posted on the north of the river, they accompanied that General in the chase to the Megaliesberg, where De Wet escaped through Olifant's Nek, from which, by some mistake, the blocking force had just been removed. The Colonial Division now accompanied Lord Methuen to Zeerust, in the north-west of the Transvaal [Lord Robert's despatch of 10th October 1900, para 28]. On the 25th August the division along with the 3rd Cavalry Brigade started on their return journey to the Orange River Colony, Colonel Dalgety of the CMR being in command of the force. They met with much opposition between Zeerust and Krugersdorp. The losses of the division on this march were 10 men killed and 5 officers and 20 men wounded. About the middle of September the division was concentrated at Rhenoster, in the Orange River Colony.

In October part of the Cape Police and Cape Mounted Rifles were in a column under Major General Settle operating about Hoopstad, and on the 7th Lieutenant Orley Humphry and one man were wounded at Rhenoster. On the 19th the CMR had Sergeant Majors Pearce and Kennedy wounded. On the 23rd Settle was closely engaged by a Boer force of about 650 strong. "The Cape Police and Cape Mounted Rifles bore the brunt of the fighting, covering the baggage of the column, 73 waggons, and were heavily engaged for two hours before the Boers were driven off. The Cape Police were forced to abandon their two maxims, having first rendered them useless, owing to the horses being shot and darkness setting in. Our casualties were 7 men killed, 12 wounded, and 17 missing". Of these the Police had 4 killed and 8 wounded, and the CMR 3 killed. Lieutenant W Rolfe of the Rifles died at Kimberley on 13th November of wounds received. Settle's column arrived at Boshof on 30th October, then moved south and crossed the Orange River Colony to the Bloemfontein Railway in November. On the way his mounted men assisted Sir C Parsons to relieve Koflyfontein, which had been invested.

A portion of the Cape Police and Cape Mounted Rifles were taken to Cape Colony to pursue Kritzinger and other leaders who had managed to cross the river.

Stories of ammunition about to be landed at Lambert's Bay, and the very apparent resolution of commandos to push into the extreme south-west of Cape Colony, caused Lord Kitchener to send various columns to that district, among whom went the CMR. Some fighting was seen, and on 1st March 1901 Captain J F Purcell of the CMR, and Lieutenant Grant of Brabant's Horse, were mentioned for coolness and skill displayed in handling their men in action near Lambert's Bay. In April a portion of the CMR were engaged near Philippolis, when Lieutenant D A H Bowers gained mention for presence of mind and boldness in carrying out the relief of some troops who were hardly pressed.

The next notice of the work of the corps to be found in despatches is in the despatch of 8th July 1901, where it is stated that on 20th May Lieutenant Colonel Scobell, whose column consisted of one squadron 9th Lancers, 200 men of the CMR, and 3 guns belonging to the corps, surprised Malan's commando west of Cradock, killing 4 men and capturing 40 horses and many saddles and rifles. Scobell and other leaders now went in pursuit of some commandos in the Zuurberg, but although some losses were inflicted the main bodies generally escaped, sometimes to do damage, as when on 2nd June they captured Jamestown after a defence by the Town Guard which was the reverse of heroic. Colonel Scobell was more successful than any other leader in Cape Colony, but few officers have the gifts of resourcefulness and lightning-like decision which he proved himself to have while still a Major in the Scots Greys. "On the 6th of June Colonel Scobell's column caught a commando asleep at 3 AM. Lieutenant Colonel Lukin with a squadron of CMR rushed the laager in the dark, killing 6 Boers and capturing 25 prisoners and all the saddles of the commando". Lieutenant Colonel Lukin was mentioned for his gallant leading.

The despatch of 8th August detailed another success by Scobell. The columns had been driving the enemy north of Richmond, and his force surprised Lategan's laager, taking 10 prisoners and 105 horses and saddles. On the 22nd July at Tweefontein the Rifles had about 6 wounded, and on 8th August Captain J F Purcell was wounded. In his next despatch of 8th September Lord Kitchener again expressed himself as greatly pleased with the column. "On 5th September Lieutenant Colonel Scobell was able to achieve a brilliant success near Petersburg, 40 miles west of Cradock, where he surrounded and captured the whole of Letter's commando and a party of Boers under Breedt. 14 of the enemy were killed and 105 captured (46 of whom were wounded). The prisoners included Commandant Letter and Field-Cornets J Kruger, W Kruger, and Schoeman, and amongst the dead were two notorious rebels named Voster. 200 horses and 29,000 rounds of ammunition and all the vehicles and supplies of the enemy fell into our hands. Colonel Scobell, who deserves the greatest credit in connection with this affair, had brought to my notice the exceptional gallantry displayed during the engagement by Captain Lord Douglas Compton, 2nd Lieutenants Wynn and Neilson, all of the 9th Lancers, and Captain Purcell and Lieutenant Bowers, Cape Mounted Rifles. Our casualties were ten men killed and 8 wounded, the latter including Lieutenant Burgess, Cape Mounted Rifles". The Rifles had 2 men killed and 3 wounded. In September and ensuing months the pursuit of small bodies of the enemy was carried on with untiring energy, and Lord Kitchener praised Colonel Scobell's column along with three others for responding cheerfully to every call. In the despatch of 8th November it is stated that Lieutenant Colonel Lukin surprised a laager six miles south-west of New Bethesda at dawn on 21st October, killing 1 and taking 14 prisoners.

Down to the close of the campaign the CMR continued to operate in Cape Colony, for a time in the extreme west, always doing conscientious work of the highest order. No corps, whether regular or volunteer, could point to a better record. The number of Mentions gained was not very large, because the commanders had an extremely high standard of what was needed to get that honour.

The following extract from General Colvile's work of the IXth Division is given, not so much to show what Sergeant Bettington did, but as an example of the dangerous work constantly undertaken by men of the Colonial corps. At the time he speaks of General Colvile was fighting his way from Lindley to Heilbron, and was cut off from the main army. "As we had been less pressed on our left flank than on any other side, I thought the best chance of getting this through was to send it to the railway, and told Gleichen to give it to one of his men; but the natives all said that we were too closely surrounded, and were afraid to go alone. Sergeant Bettington, however, of the Cape Mounted Rifles, who was attached to the Intelligence Department, volunteered to take it, and started off with a Kaffir who pretended to know the road. We learnt afterwards that, having passed safely through the Boer lines, he bolted with his escort's horse and rifles, and left Sergeant Bettington to make his way for twenty-eight miles on foot as best he might. For the sake of those readers who do not know Sergeant Bettington, I may say that the message was safely delivered; those who do know him will never have had any doubt about it. He had first turned up at Modder River Camp—how or why I do not know— and varied the monotony of those dull days by his habit of appearing unexpectedly outside our outpost line after a stroll through the Boer lines. After a time our sentries got accustomed to him, and did not shoot at him any more. When the reports that 'a man in the uniform of the Cape Mounted Rifles was discovered', etc, ceased to come in, I am ashamed to say that I forgot all about him till, on the morning we attacked Cronje's laager at Paardeberg, a figure which I recognised ran past me at early dawn. It happened that we were then in doubt as to whether a certain trench on the river bank was held by the Boers or not, and on seeing him I at once said, 'Why, here is the very man to find out', and calling him back asked if he would do so. 'All right, sir', said Bettington, with the cheerful smile which any chance of extra danger always brought on to his face, and started off at the double. My Intelligence Officer was with me at the time, and said nothing; but the next time I saw Sergeant Bettington he was in charge of 'Gleichen's Horse'. The other messengers sent out by General Colvile failed to get through. To carry out successfully tasks such as those Sergeant Bettington undertook required a combination of qualities that one could scarcely expect to find in the British regular. To the fearlessness, coolness, and physical fitness which the regular generally has, there had to be added a profound knowledge of the Boer and the Black, and of the country they lived in; and, above all, the ever-ranging eye, a product of the veldt, bred or educated up to distances at which the home-trained vision is useless.

The Mentions gained by the CMR are as follows:—

Lieutenant Colonel Dalgety's Report as to Wepener, 29th April 1900.—Captain Lukin commanded artillery and did most excellent work, putting one of enemy's guns out of action. Captain Cantwell, after Major Sprenger was killed and Major Waring wounded, on the 9th and 11th respectively, commanded in advanced schanzen. Captain and Quartermaster Phillips, when 2 officers were killed and 5 wounded, took command of 50 men, and held a most important position. Captain Grant, Field-Adjutant, did the work of half a dozen men. Sergeant Roberts, Privates Rawlings and Robarts, and Trumpeter Washington brought in wounded comrades under heavy fire.

LORD ROBERTS' DESPATCHES: 2nd April 1901. — Lieutenant Colonel E H Dalgety; Major C F Sprenger (killed); Captains Cantwell, C L J Goldsworthy, Grant, Lukin; Lieutenant Roy; Sergeant Major Robson; Sergeant Roberts ; Corporal Bettington; Privates Rawlings, Robarts, Washington.
4th September 1901.—Sergeant Major G P Roberts. Artillery Troop Gunner Anderson.

LORD KITCHENER'S DESPATCHES: 8th May 1901.—Captain J F Purcell, coolness and skill at Lambert's Bay.
8th July 1901.—Lieutenant D A H Bowers, boldness in relief of troops near Philippolis; Lieutenant Colonel Lukin, gallant leading in night-attack on laager; Private White, on 9th May, Molteno district, signaller with a patrol engaged with superior numbers, caught and took back a horse to one man, and took up another on his own—both acts under fire.
8th October 1901.—Captain J F Purcell; Lieutenant Bowers, marked gallantry, capture of Letter's commando; Private Haines, conspicuous gallantry, same occasion.
8th December 1901.—Sergeant A Alien; A C Archibald (Archdeacon); Corporal W Eeder, coolness, courage, and gallantry while with Colonel Scobell.
23rd June 1902.—Major Hook; Sergeant Q H Randolph; Corporal R Stopford.
Colonel E H Dalgety was awarded the CB; Surgeon Lieutenant Colonel Hartley, VC and Lieutenant Colonel Lukin the CMG.

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