The Natal Mounted Police (NMP) was formed in 1874 by a retired British Army officer, Major (later Major-General Sir) John Dartnell as a para-military force and the first line of defence in the Colony of Natal. Its men first saw action in the Zulu War of 1879, where one detachment went in search of the Zulu army while another stayed and fought in the Battle of Isandlwana. Twenty-five of the latter died of whom 21 fought in a last stand with 19 Natal Carbineers trying to protect the camp commander, Colonel Durnford. Two men, one of whom was killed, took part in the Battle of Rorke's Drift. Natal Mounted Policemen later served in the Basuto Rebellion (1880/1) and the Transvaal Rebellion (1st Anglo-Boer War) (1880/1). Normal policing included providing an escort for the Empress Eugenie in 1880 when she visited the site where her son, the Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, was killed during the Zulu War. After 1881, out-stations were established throughout Natal and policing often consisted of long patrols in out-of-the-way places.
In 1894 the Natal Mounted Police was amalgamated with other of the Colony's law-enforcement and prisons agencies to form the Natal Police (NP), by which name it was known until it was disbanded in 1913.
One of the notable achievements of this new force was the introduction for the first time in Africa of finger-printing for forensic identification purposes. The world's first forensic fingerprint office had been established in Calcutta, India, in 1897. Sub-Inspector (later Chief Commissioner) W J Clarke of the NP's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was convinced of the value of the system in law-enforcement and in 1898 he tried to introduce fingerprinting in Natal. Clarke received no support from his superiors but he was so convinced of the merits of the system that he launched it at his own expense. Eventually, the system was officially approved and, after increasing numbers of arrests and convictions, finger-printing became standard police procedure in Natal. By about 1910, there were more sets of finger-prints on file with the NP's CID than there were at any similar office in the British Empire, including Scotland Yard.
In September 1899, when war with the Boer Republics was threatening, the NP went on alert and detachments of men were sent to patrol the borders. War was declared on 11/10/1899 and three days later the first casualties of the Natal campaign were suffered when a Boer patrol crossed the Buffalo River at De Jager's Drift and captured a NP picket stationed there. All the police in northern Natal then retired to Dundee, where the Battle of Talana was fought on 20/10/1899. The NP, which was held in reserve with the Leicestershire Regiment, had only two men wounded in this action. The British force then retired to Ladysmith with the NP under Colonel Dartnell leading the way. Several men were present during the Battle of Elandslaagte (21/10/1899), but did not take part in the fighting.
In the days leading up to the Siege of Ladysmith, the Boers gained the upper hand in several skirmishes with the British. One such action was at Lombard's Kop on 30/10/1899, when many of the police came under fire for the first time. Thereafter, except for a NP escort that took Boer prisoners to Pietermaritzburg, all 90 northern Natal policemen were besieged in Ladysmith.
During the Siege Colonel Dartnell served on General White's staff, while Sub-Inspector Clarke took command of the NP force, which was attached to the Natal Volunteers under Colonel Royston. The NP casualties during the Siege were one man killed, three wounded and three died of disease.
The first significant action that involved the Natal Volunteers and their fellow-Colonials, the Imperial Light Horse (ILH), was a night attack on Gun Hill on 7/12/1899. The NP guarded the left flank of the attack, which was carried out by men of the ILH and Natal Carbineers (NC), together with a demolition team from the Royal Engineers. The Boers were taken by surprise and retreated from the summit, abandoning their guns in the process. A howitzer and Long Tom were damaged with explosives and the Long Tom breech block and a Maxim gun were carried back to Ladysmith by the attackers. The NP were late in returning to Ladysmith, having failed to hear the "retire" bugle call owing to an intervening hill. This successful enterprise was one of the few morale-boosters experienced by the inhabitants of Ladysmith during the Siege.
The NP were next in action on the night of 5/1/1900 when a picket ahead of Caesar's Camp came under fire in what turned out to be a major Boer attack on the British line on Wagon Hill (6/1/1900). As day broke the Boers shot all the picket's horses forcing the NP to retreat on foot under heavy fire and three men were wounded before they reached their camp by a circuitous route that avoided the enemy and the action on Wagon Hill. Although the British suffered heavy casualties that day, they prevailed and the Boers eventually called off the attack after also loosing many men. The Boers never again attempted a frontal assault on the Ladysmith garrison.
After 118 days of increasing privation, the Siege was lifted on the afternoon of 28/2/1900 by an advance party of the Mounted Brigade's Composite Regiment, which included 15 Natal Policemen under Sub-Inspector A G Abraham. A resident of Ladysmith, Bella Craw, described the event in her diary:
"We heard great cheering at Indombi Camp" and were told that a "flying column was to be seen coming past [the] Camp, so we immediately turned down the street in the direction of the cheering. We got so excited that we actually ran at times through pools and puddles that were too big to jump (there had been a heavy rain during the afternoon). We only got as far as Mrs Hayden's when we met a squadron of Imperial Light Horse headed by Major Karri Davis, 80 so I believe were there. Then came a small number of Natal Police, twenty or thirty, then Natal Carbineers headed by Major Duncan McKenzie ..." "The General and all his staff met them just by our gate."
The NP who escaped the Siege had prepared for the War before it broke out. Preparations included the establishment of the Natal Police Field Force (NP FF), whose members were excluded from police duties and who were placed on active service. One detachment, together with the Umvoti Mounted Rifles, was sent to Tugela Ferry on the Zululand border in case there was an invasion by that route. A second NP FF detachment was sent to Estcourt, where it was divided in two. One section became the Bodyguard for General Sir Redvers Buller VC, Officer Commanding the British forces in Natal, a duty entrusted to the Natal Police for the duration of Buller's stay in South Africa. The second section joined detachments of other Colonial troops whose regiments were besieged in Ladysmith (ILH, NC, Natal Mounted Rifles and Border Mounted Rifles) and a company of the King's Royal Rifle Corps Mounted Infantry to form the Composite Regiment (under Major Gough) of the Mounted Brigade (under Lord Dundonald).
The Composite Regiment was active throughout the Relief. Because it included so many local men who were familiar with the area of operations, and who spoke Dutch and Zulu, it was invaluable in scouting and patrols. In addition to providing Buller's Bodyguard, the NP also provided orderlies to Lord Dundonald and General Hildyard during the Battle of Colenso (15/12/1899). During this battle, the Composite Regiment took part in the Mounted Brigade's assault on Hlangwane. This assault failed for want of infantry support. This deficiency was remedied two months later at the start of the Battle of Tugela Heights when Hlangwane and other high ground south of the Tugela River was taken. This ultimately led to the defeat of the Boers to the north of the river and the lifting of the Siege.
Another action involving the NP at this time was the assault on the Nqutu Magistracy by a Boer Commando (30/1/1900), which resulted in the capture of the Magistrate and his staff, together with a number of NP and Zululand Police.
After the Siege, the NP FF and Buller's Bodyguard fought on in northern Natal and the eastern Transvaal until Buller's command was successfully concluded after the last setpiece battle of the War at Bergendal (27/8/1900). Thereafter many NP returned to their pre-War positions, although those in Zululand and the Transvaal districts of Utrecht and Vryheid remained on active service until the end of the War. A new unit, the Utrecht-Vryheid Mounted Police was formed at this time and after the War it was replaced by the Natal Border Police (NBP). The NBP was amalgamated with the NP when Utrecht and Vryheid were incorporated into Natal.
The most serious action involving the NP at this time took place in Zululand on 28/4/1901. A NP patrol from Mahlabatini was fired on and, after being reinforced, it continued towards Mtonjaneni. Before reaching safety, it was ambushed by a large Boer force. A firefight ensued and the Boers were eventually driven off. The NP had four killed, two mortally wounded and one wounded. Sergeant J H Evans and Sergeant J A Smith were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for their actions during this skirmish.
Later, Brigadier-General Dartnell, who had been promoted, took command of the newly-formed Imperial Light Horse Brigade in the eastern Orange Free State. He took with him a number of Natal Policemen and they remained there until Dartnell relinquished his post at the end of 1901.
The NP next saw action during the 1906 Natal (Bambhatha) Rebellion. The spark that set off this conflict was the murder of two Natal Policemen near Richmond on 8/2/1906. The NP fielded the largest uniformed force of over 1 100 men during the Rebellion, which was a far cry from the approximately 300 men in the NP in 1899. Six policemen were killed in action during this conflict and two were awarded the DCM.
After the unification of South Africa in 1910, the days of the Colonial police forces were numbered. In 1913 the NP ceased to exist and its men were assigned either to a military unit, the South African Mounted Rifles, or the S A Police and S A Prisons Service. In the 40 years of its existence, the NMP/NP fought in two wars and three rebellions and countless other minor skirmishes, a record that is probably not equaled by any other police force in late Victorian and Edwardian times.
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