The 1st Battalion was in Ladysmith when war was declared. They were not present at either Glencoe (20th October 1899) or Elandslaagte (21st October). On the 24th Sir George White, being anxious to engage the attention of the Boers and so prevent them falling on General Yule's column, then retreating from Dundee to Ladysmith, moved out of the latter town and fought the action of Rietfontein. The force which he took out was—5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, Imperial Light Horse, Natal Mounted Volunteers, 42nd and 53rd Batteries RFA, No 10 Mountain Battery, 1st Liverpools, 1st Devons, 1st Gloucesters, and 2nd King's Royal Rifles.
Sir George threw out the Lancers and Hussars to seize some ridges and protect his right. The Gloucesters advanced on the left and the Liverpools on their right, the Devons being in support afterwards in the firing line and the King's Royal Rifles at the baggage. The general's intention was not to come to close fighting. The two field batteries did admirable work, silencing the Boer guns and keeping down the enemy's rifle-fire, and what was a tactical success might have been accomplished at very slight loss, but the Gloucesters pushed rather too far forward and suffered severely. Before 2 pm firing had ceased, the Boers had withdrawn westwards, and the danger of that part of their army attacking General Yule was over.
On 26th October General Yule's force entered Ladysmith, wearied and mud-bedraggled, after a march entailing very great bodily hardship to all and very great anxiety to those in command.
On the three following days the Boers concentrated to the north of Ladysmith, and on the 29th General White resolved to again take the offensive next day. The action is variously known as Lombard's Kop, Farquhar's Farm, Nicholson's Nek, and Ladysmith. The last name seems the most appropriate. To reconcile the different accounts of this battle written by men who were on the field is an impossible task. For example, the account of Mr Bennet Burleigh differs on many most important points from that of 'The Times' historian. For the main features the official despatch must be relied on. Briefly, General White's scheme was to take the Boer positions, Long Hill and Pepworth Hill, north of Ladysmith; to throw forward part of his cavalry between and beyond Lombard's Kop and Bulwana on the north-east to protect his right flank, and to seize Nicholson's Nek, or a position near it, on the north-west, from which the rest of his cavalry could operate in the event of a Boer retreat.
At 11 pm on the 29th the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, 1st Gloucesters, and 10th Mountain Battery marched off towards Nicholson's Nek. At a hill called Cainguba some stones were rolled down from above; there was a momentary confusion, during which the mules carrying the mountain guns and ammunition stampeded. Some of the infantry charged and took the hill without difficulty. "The officer in command then ordered the remainder of the force up the hill, and some stone works were set up in the darkness; but when daylight appeared it was seen that the perimeter was such as to make the task of holding the top one of difficulty. In the morning the Boers massed round the hill, ascended its steep sides, and firing from the rocks round the edge of the top, soon did much damage. At 12.30 a white flag, unauthorised by any of the senior officers, was put up at an outlying sangar and the Boers flocked in. The flag was indorsed by those in chief command, and the whole force surrendered. This, of course, was not known to Sir George till late on the 30th, although from men and mule-drivers who had come back into Ladysmith in the morning he knew that his operations on the left were foredoomed to failure, if not to disaster. Strange it is that British troops have so often been unfortunate in their experience of holding hill-tops in South Africa. After dark on the 29th the Natal Mounted Volunteers seized Lombard's Kop and Bulwana. At 3 am on the 30th Major General French moved out with the 5th Lancers, the 19th Hussars, and some Natal Volunteers; but at daybreak he found that he could not get much farther than the exit of the pass between the two last-mentioned hills; indeed by 8 am he could barely hold his position, and was thus of little use in protecting the right of the main attack.
West of French's cavalry was what was intended to be the main attacking force under Colonel Grimwood, to consist of the 1st Liverpool, 1st Leicester, 1st and 2nd King's Royal Rifles, and 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, with the 21st, 42nd, and 53rd Batteries RFA and the Natal Field Battery. By some unfortunate bungling or confusion of orders the artillery intended for Colonel Grimwood did not accompany him, but branched off, taking along with them the Liverpools, Dublin Fusiliers, and two companies of the Mounted Infantry.
West of Grimwood was Colonel Ian Hamilton with the 1st Devon, 1st Manchester, 2nd Gordons, and 2nd Rifle Brigade. The latter battalion had arrived in Ladysmith at 3 am that morning, and only joined the rest of the brigade on the field at 6.30. With Hamilton the 13th, 67th, and 69th Batteries RFA were intended to be.
The original scheme of the action involved that Colonel Grimwood's brigade would turn half-left and work inwards to Pepworth Hill, but at an early hour he was very heavily attacked from his right front and right flank. Accordingly he had to turn in that direction, extend his front greatly, throw his whole people into the firing line, and when that was done he had the greatest difficulty in maintaining his position even after the 21st and 53rd Batteries came to his support. About 8 am General White sent the 5th Dragoon Guards and 18th Hussars and the 69th and afterwards the 21st Batteries to assist French, the 13th and 53rd Batteries supporting Grimwood. At 10 am the Manchesters were taken from Hamilton and were also sent to support Grimwood. Even with this diversion of force to the right he could gain nothing. "This condition of affairs continued until 11.30 am, when, finding that there was little prospect of bringing the engagement to a decisive issue, I determined to withdraw my troops". The 2nd Rifle Brigade lined the crest of Limit Hill, facing east. The 2nd Gordons took up a similar position. Sir George's words are: "I sent Major General Sir A Hunter, KCB, my chief of staff, to arrange a retirement in echelon from the left, covered by the fire of our artillery. This was most successfully carried out, the artillery advancing in the most gallant manner and covering the infantry movement with the greatest skill and coolness". That the artillery did magnificently is beyond doubt. They had to work in the open exposed to very heavy shell-fire, and but for the heroic services of the 13th, 21st, 53rd, and 69th Batteries, Grimwood's infantry and French's cavalry would have had much greater difficulty in withdrawing. Unfortunately unofficial accounts do not praise the infantry of Colonel Grimwood's command, and it has been said that the retirement was not orderly. 'The Times' historian is indeed mercilessly severe on that officer and certain of the regiments in his command. Whether that severity is warranted it is outside the scope of this work to discuss; but it must be borne in mind that some of the troops were still worn out with the march from Dundee—and further, at Talana Hill they had lost very many officers. The 1st King's Royal Rifles, for example, had lost their colonel and 4 officers killed and 6 wounded.
In his evidence before the War Commission Sir Archibald Hunter, who was chief of Sir George White's staff, said: "We withdrew, and in a very orderly way. The artillery covered our withdrawal, and the long lines of infantry simply marched back; it was like a field-day".
No account of the battle of 30th October could possibly omit the value of the services of the Naval Brigade, who arrived in Ladysmith by train that morning, and with characteristic expedition got their guns into action against the heavy artillery of the Boers.
During the siege of Ladysmith the Liverpools were located on the north side of the town, and were not in the terrible fighting when the attack was made upon the southern defences on 6th January. Of course a feint was made on the north of the town, but the attack was not pressed as it was at Caesar's Camp and Waggon Hill.
On the night of the 7th December Colonel Mellor and three companies of the Liverpools seized Limit Hill, "and through the gap thus created" a squadron of the 19th Hussars penetrated some four miles to the north, destroying the enemy's telegraph line and burning various shelters, etc.
On 1st March 1900, the day of the relief, the 1st Liverpools and other troops, now emaciated and worn to absolute weakness, crawled some five miles north of Ladysmith to harass the enemy in their retreat, and did effect some good work in that way.
Two officers were mentioned in General White's despatch of 23rd March 1900.
When Sir Redvers Buller moved north from Natal the Ladysmith troops, called the IVth Division, were put under General Lyttelton, the brigadiers being General F W Kitchener, 7th Brigade, and General Howard, 8th Brigade, the latter composed of 1st Liverpool, 1st Leicestershire, 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and 1st King's Eoyal Rifles; the Fusiliers taking the place of the 2nd King's Royal Rifles, which went to Ceylon in July with prisoners.
The IVth Division had fighting in various places after moving north from the Natal Railway, particularly at Rooikopjes on 24th July, where the Gordons of the 7th Brigade had stiffish work, and at Amersfoort on the 7th August. Daily there was skirmishing. In the fighting on the 21st August, Sergeant Hampton of the 2nd Liverpool Mounted Infantry and Corporal Knight of the 1st Battalion gained the Victoria Cross for acts of the most conspicuous gallantry.
It became evident that the Boers were to make a stand between Geluk and Dalmanutha. "Buller met with some opposition on the 23rd August near Van Wyk's Vlei, and towards evening two companies of the 1st Battalion Liverpool Regiment entered by mistake a hollow out of sight of the main body, where they came under a heavy fire, losing 10 men killed, and 1 officer and 45 men wounded". On the 23rd Private Heaton also gained the Cross for volunteering to take back a message explaining the unfortunate position of the companies; this he successfully did, saving them from capture. The very unsatisfactory incident mentioned in the quotation took place close to the main Boer position, which on the 27th Sir Redvers Buller, after consultation with Lord Roberts, decided to assault. The 7th Brigade, General Walter Kitchener's, was chosen for the main attack, the 8th supporting. The regiment selected to lead the assault on the key of the position at Bergendal was the 2nd Rifle Brigade, and as to them fell the worst of the fighting, the details of the action are dealt with under that battalion.
After the battle of Bergendal General Buller's force crossed to the north of the railway and marched towards Lydenburg. On 2nd September he found himself in front of a very strong position at Badfontein, and Lord Roberts ordered Ian Hamilton with a strong column to move up on Buller's left. This had the desired effect, and on the 6th the enemy withdrew beyond Lydenburg. On the 8th General Buller successfully attacked another position at Paardeplatz, and thereafter he crossed the Mauchsberg and other mountains after the fleeing Boers. He returned to Lydenburg, and leaving part of his force there, he came back to the railway, and shortly afterwards he himself left for home.
Five officers and 5 non-commissioned officers and men of the battalion were mentioned in General Buller's final despatch of 9th November 1900, and 8 officers and 12 non-commissioned officers and men in Lord Roberts' final despatch.
Part of Buller's force long continued to garrison Lydenburg and the posts between that town and the railway. One of the posts, Helvetia, close to the line, was garrisoned by about 250 men of the Liverpools with a 4-7 naval gun when the place was attacked and captured by a strong force of Boers on 29th December 1900. In his telegraphic despatch Lord Kitchener described Helvetia as a "very strong post", and he seemed to be surprised at its capture. Our losses were 11 men killed, 4 officers and 20 men wounded, and the remainder taken prisoners. No official explanation of the loss of the post has ever been made public, and from some points of view this is a matter of regret, as the incident, left as it is, tarnishes the reputation of a regiment which had done very good work. Very probably a few individuals were responsible for the Boers getting in; and it has been said that in any event there is very good ground for believing that it would be better for the regiment involved, and for the service generally, if the result of the official inquiry in such a case were published.
During the remainder of the war the 1st Liverpool Regiment was in the Eastern Transvaal.
Three officers and 6 non-commissioned officers and men gained mention in Lord Kitchener's despatches during the war, 1 officer, Captain Wilkinson, being appointed major "for holding out at Helvetia"; and in the final despatch 3 officers and 3 men were mentioned.
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