The 1st Battalion sailed in the beginning of October 1899, and being early on the scene, was employed on garrison duty in Cape Colony till Lord Methuen commenced his advance from Orange River.
Before that there had been little fighting on the borders of the colony, but in a reconnaissance from Orange River on 10th November 1899 the battalion lost Colonel Keith-Falconer killed and two other officers wounded.
In consequence of some of the brigades originally intended for Lord Methuen's command having been diverted to Natal for the relief of Ladysmith, a brigade, afterwards known as the 9th, was formed of troops which were available, the component parts being the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, 2nd Northampton Regiment, 2nd Yorkshire Light Infantry, and part of the 1st Loyal North Lancashire; the other companies and headquarters of the last-named regiment being the main part and only regular troops of the Kimberley garrison when the war broke out. Some companies of the 1st Munster Fusiliers were temporarily attached to the brigade, and were present with it at Belmont. Major General Fetherstonhaugh was appointed to the command of the 9th, but had the grievous misfortune to be wounded in their first battle at Belmont. The command was then given to Colonel Money of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, who acted as brigadier during the latter part of the battle of Belmont, 23rd November, and at Enslin, 25th November. Major General Pole-Carew, who had gone out to South Africa as commandant of headquarters, was thereafter appointed to command the brigade, and it was under his leadership that the 9th distinguished themselves greatly at Modder River and did useful work at Magersfontein.
On the day of Belmont, 23rd November 1899, Lord Methuen led into action the Guards Brigade, the 9th Brigade, 9th Lancers, two companies of Mounted Infantry, the 18th and 75th Batteries RFA, and a Naval Brigade. A field battery and a moiety of the slender mounted force available were on either flank. The 9th Brigade formed the left of the infantry in the advance into action. Lord Methuen's orders were that they should advance on Table Mountain, and "having secured it, swing round left, then advance east to west"; but on account of one of the Guards battalions having taken a slightly different direction in the darkness from that originally intended, the first instructions, under which the 9th were to have "the lion's share of the work", were modified. The brigade moved into action with the Northumberlands on the left, the Northamptons on their right, the Yorkshire Light Infantry and two companies Munster Fusiliers being in rear. The two regiments in the front rank performed their task — a difficult one — in the most satisfactory way, dislodging the enemy from Table Mountain and other defensive positions in the best style. The casualties of the Fusiliers were 2 officers and 12 men killed, 4 officers and 36 men wounded.
On 25th November Lord Methuen, continuing his northern advance, fought the battle of Enslin, sometimes called Graspan. The troops present were practically the same as at Belmont, but the serious work at Enslin fell to the 9th Brigade under Colonel Money and to the Naval Brigade. In his despatch Lord Methuen says: "The 9th Brigade was distributed as follows: five companies of Northumberland Fusiliers remained as a containing line in front of right of enemy's position and did not advance until the end of the engagement; two companies Northumberland Fusiliers escort to guns; the remainder of the brigade attacked the kopjes on left of Boer position. The fire from here was very heavy, and the Naval Brigade suffered severely, keeping in too close formation. The officers, petty officers, and non-commissioned officers led their men with great gallantry". In another part of his despatch the general states that the position "was well prepared by shrapnel", and the Naval Brigade suffered through not "taking advantage of cover". The casualties of the Fusiliers at Enslin were very slight.
On 28th November Lord Methuen, still pushing northwards, fought the very stiffly contested battle of Modder River. The Boers had a splendid defensive position on the Modder, near its junction with the Riet.
Lord Methuen's intention was to leave the railway at Modder River village, marching via Jacobsdal on Spytfontein. At that time the general believed the Boers to have vacated the village, but on the morning of the 28th he received information that it was strongly held, and he thereupon decided to have it cleared. The British troops were the same as those engaged at the two previous actions, with the addition of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had in the meantime joined the force; the 62nd Battery RFA, after a long march, came into action in the afternoon. The Guards Brigade (see 3rd Grenadier Guards) were on the right near the junction of the rivers; the 9th Brigade, now under General Pole-Carew, on the left. After stating that the Guards Brigade could not effect a crossing in face of the awful fire, and had merely to lie down and take what cover they could, chiefly behind ant-hills, Lord Methuen said: "Meanwhile the 9th Brigade had advanced, the Northumberland Fusiliers along the east side of the railway line, supported by half a battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The Yorkshire Light Infantry advanced along the west side of the railway, supported by the remaining half-battalion of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The half-battalion Loyal North Lancashire prolonged the line to the left, and endeavoured to cross the river and threaten the enemy's right flank. The six companies Northamptons acted as a baggage-guard. The 9th Brigade had the same hard task before it that faced the Guards Brigade: on the extreme left an outcrop of rocks and small kopjes on the left bank of the river, considerably in advance of the enemy's main position, were strongly held by the enemy, and checked the advance of the Loyal North Lancashire. Some 600 yards east, the same side of the river, a farmhouse and kraal on a slight eminence covering the dam and drift at the west end of village, also strongly occupied, checked the advance. A withering fire from these buildings checked the advance of the brigade. They were, however, carried early in the afternoon by two companies of the Yorkshire Light Infantry under Lieutenant Colonel Barter, together with some Highlanders and Northumberland Fusiliers. Lieutenant Fox, Yorkshire Light Infantry, gallantly led this assault; he was severely wounded. Almost at the same moment the rocks and kopjes on the extreme left were carried by the Loyal North Lancashire. We had now won the river" (which was crossed) "and west side of village, out of which the enemy were soon chased. Major General Pole-Carew led his men in a gallant manner for three-quarters of a mile up the bank, when he was forced back and had to content himself with holding a fairly good position he had gained on the right bank".
Unofficial accounts say that Pole-Carew's men were shelled by our own guns—if so, there must have been some bad staff-work, as none of the movements were hurried or unforeseen.
As in the previous battles, the whole of the troops behaved magnificently, and the crossing of the river by the 9th Brigade is undoubtedly one of the finest feats in the war. At Modder River the Fusiliers lost approximately 11 men killed and 34 wounded. Two officers and 4 men were mentioned in Lord Methuen's despatch for good work and great gallantry.
On 11th December, the day of Magersfontein, the 9th Brigade, minus the Yorkshire Light Infantry, were not in the principal action, but were engaged holding the camp and making a diversion along the railway to the left of the real attack. The Yorkshire Light Infantry were engaged on the extreme right.
During the next three months the 9th Brigade had little fighting, as until Lord Roberts was ready to advance from Modder River to Bloemfontein Lord Methuen remained quiescent in his camp. When the advance commenced that general and the 9th Brigade moved up to Kimberley and Warrenton. Sir Archibald Hunter's division then came round from Natal to the Kimberley district, and Lord Methuen was able to move farther east. He operated about Boshof till 14th May. Lord Roberts having advanced from Bloemfontein in the beginning of May, Methuen was ordered to move inwards—that is, towards the main army. He occupied Hoopstad on 17th May, and was then directed to go to the Kroonstad district to protect the lines of communication in Lord Roberts' rear.
The Guards Brigade having gone with the main army to Bloemfontein and Pretoria, Lord Methuen's division was now composed of the 9th Brigade, now under Major General Douglas, and the 20th under Major General Paget, the Yorkshire Light Infantry being transferred from the 9th to Paget's brigade.
On 29th May Methuen was ordered to go towards Lindley to assist Colvile and the Highland Brigade, who were then rather hardly pressed. On his way he received a message from Colonel Spragge of the Irish Yeomanry stating that he was much pressed and short of food. Methuen pushed on with his mounted troops, covering forty-four miles in twenty-five hours, and arrived at Lindley on 2nd June, but Spragge had surrendered on 31st May. Methuen then attacked and completely defeated the Boer force in the neighbourhood.
Paget's brigade was left in Lindley (see 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers), and Lord Methuen with the other brigade was ordered to move to Heilbron with supplies for Colvile.
On 7th June the Boers attacked and captured the post at Rhenoster Bridge, held by the 4th Derbyshire Militia, the garrison losing 5 officers and 32 men killed, 100 wounded, and the remainder taken prisoners.
On the 11th Lord Methuen arrived near Rhenoster, and attacking the enemy, again defeated them, recapturing the Imperial Yeomanry field hospital. Methuen then went to Heilbron with supplies, and thereafter moved to Paardekraal, where he captured immense quantities of stock and some prisoners. On 12th July he was ordered to take his column to Kroonstad, and thence rail it to Krugersdorp. This was accomplished by the 16th, and he then marched to Rustenburg to assist Baden-Powell. There was an engagement on the 21st, but the enemy scattered. The 1st Loyal North Lancashire were left to hold Oliphant's Nek, and Methuen marched south again with the remainder of his force. He had fighting on the 28th, and entered Potchefstroom on the 29th. His force now was the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, 2nd Northampton Regiment, 750 Imperial Yeomanry, six guns, two howitzers, and two pom-poms. De Wet, who had been on the Reitzburg hills for two weeks, crossed the Vaal on 7th August. On the 8th and 9th Methuen engaged his rear-guard and continued the pursuit until the 15th, when it was discovered that the Boers had slipped through Oliphant's Nek, from which by some misfortune or mistake the Loyal North Lancashire had been removed. In the pursuit Methuen captured a gun, some prisoners, waggons, &e., and released about 60 of our men, who had been having an indescribable time, some of the poor wretches being absolutely unable to crawl when they slipped off the waggons or dropped behind. Methuen's own men had a time during the first fortnight of August which none of them are likely to forget. Various other columns took part in this pursuit. Lord Methuen now moved via Zeerust to Mafeking. Leaving Douglas and a part of his force at Mafeking he marched towards Schweizer-Reneke, and on the way captured a gun, about 50 prisoners, much ammunition, and an enormous quantity of stock. His own force had almost no casualties. This was the first of many very substantial successes which should not be lost sight of when we think of the disasters which were to come, when his own force was weakened by withdrawals and his enemy strengthened by commandos driven from other districts.
In Lord Roberts' final despatches 24 officers and 37 non-commissioned officers and men of the Northumberland Fusiliers were mentioned, but these included both battalions.
In the second phase of the campaign the 9th was entirely non-existent as a brigade acting together. The 1st Northumberland Fusiliers at times alone remained with Lord Methuen, and often only a portion of the battalion accompanied the general on his endless treks during the latter part of 1900 and beginning of 1901.
Three hundred men of the Northumberland Fusiliers and 200 Imperial Yeomanry were the garrison of Lichtenburg under Colonel Money when that place was, on 3rd March 1901, attacked by a Boer force of 1500, with a gun, under Delarey, Smutz, and Celliers. "The attack commenced at 3 am and continued till midnight, when the enemy retired, having been completely repulsed at all points, with a loss of 60 killed and wounded and 7 prisoners. The casualties of the garrison, who made a gallant defence, were 2 officers and 13 men of the Fusiliers, and 1 other killed and about 26 wounded, of whom the majority belonged to the battalion.
Four officers and 7 non-commissioned officers and men of the battalion were mentioned in despatches for great gallantry on this occasion.
For some months in 1901 the Volunteer Company, along with a company of Leinster Militia, formed the infantry of a column based on Kimberley which did useful work in the west of the Orange River Colony.
In October 1901 Lord Methuen was operating near Zeerust. He had detached from his force a small column under Von Donop. A most determined attack was made on this column by Delarey with 1000 men, who rode up through the bush to close quarters and made great efforts to capture the two guns of the 4th Battery. The artillerymen were practically all shot down. A few of the Northumberland Fusiliers formed the escort, and of these 12 men were killed, and 1 officer and 13 men were wounded. The Boers were driven off, leaving 40 dead. In this affair 5 non-commissioned officers and men of the battalion gained mention.
On 25th February 1902 Colonel Anderson of the 5th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry, with that battalion, three companies of the Fusiliers, including some militia attached, two guns and a pom-pom, was taking an empty convoy to Klerksdorp when he was attacked by Delarey with 1500 men at dawn. Twice the attack was driven off, but the third time the enemy broke the screen and got in. The casualties were very heavy, those of the Fusiliers being approximately 3 officers and 9 men killed, 2 officers and 62 men wounded. Of the Militia attached the 3rd South Wales Borderers had 1 officer and 2 men killed, and 1 officer and some men wounded; and the 3rd South Stafford had 8 killed and 25 wounded.
The days of tribulation were not yet over. Delarey, flushed with success and strengthened greatly by Boers driven from other districts where Lord Kitchener was massing large forces and making great sweeping drives, swooped down on Lord Methuen upon 6th and 7th March 1902. Lord Methuen's force was perhaps the most heterogeneous ever seen on a field. He had 900 mounted men from nine different units—200 of the Fusiliers, 100 of the Loyal North Lancashire, two guns of the 4th Battery, two of the 38th, and two pom-poms. On the 6th there "had been some sniping at the rear by about 100 men of Van Zyl's commando. Seeing some confusion, I went back myself. ... I found the rear screen, which consisted of the 86th company Imperial Yeomanry, very much out of hand, and lacking both fire discipline and knowledge how to act. There seemed to be a want of instructed officers and non-commissioned officers". Van Zyl's commando being accurately shelled, retired to a "good position in the bed of the Klein Harts River. From this they were cleared out by Major Berange of the Cape Police. For this work the Police and their leader were praised by Lord Methuen. Next morning at 3 am the convoy had moved off. At 5 am an intense fire was opened on the rear screen, and soon the right flank was attacked. The infantry extended; but about 6.30 the bulk of the mounted troops bolted, and galloped in complete confusion past our left flank, leaving the two guns of the 38th Battery unprotected, but these were served till every man was shot". Lord Methuen remained with the guns and infantry till wounded. Captain Montague of the Fusiliers and his infantry held out till 9.30 "in a most splendid manner". The Fusiliers had about 20 casualties. In his telegram of 10th March Lord Kitchener says: "Sections of the 4th and 38th Batteries showed great gallantry, and 330 men of the Northumberland Fusiliers and Loyal North Lancashire Regiment showed conspicuous courage in protecting the waggons, and refused to surrender until resistance was useless".
This was a sad close to two and a half years' splendid work. No battalion had done more continuous hard work throughout the campaign, and none had done their allotted task in a worthier manner.
In Lord Kitchener's final despatch 6 officers and 6 non-commissioned officers of the regiment were mentioned.
The 2nd Battalion sailed on the Kildonan Castle early in November 1899, arrived at the Cape about the 23rd, and was sent round to East London, where Sir W F Gatacre was urgently in need of men. The battalion sailed as corps troops, but the whole of the IIIrd Division, except the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, having been sent to Natal, the Fusiliers, 1st Royal Scots, and 1st Derbys were successively sent to General Gatacre. The Derbys did not arrive until after Stormberg was fought. The general had also three companies of Mounted Infantry, some local troops — about 1000, mostly mounted — and half of the 2nd Berks, who had been in Stormberg when the war broke out. The district he had to protect was wide, deeply disaffected, and threatened by the enemy from the north and east. In these circumstances General Gatacre, although he was aware that he was weak in numbers, decided that it was desirable to capture the strong position at Stormberg Junction, which had been occupied by the Boers on the withdrawal of the British garrison.
On 7th December the general announced that he would entrain for Molteno on the afternoon of the 8th and thence march on Stormberg. The expedition was postponed until the 9th. At 4 am the infantry were astir and at work about the camp, an unfortunate proceeding, as the men's actual work was to commence after dark that night, and they had thus to begin it almost exhausted. In the whole management of the affair the same lack of consideration, or, one is inclined to say, common-sense, forces itself on one. The actual entraining commenced in the afternoon; the railway arrangements were faulty, the trains being two hours late in arriving at Molteno.
It had been intended to leave Molteno at 7 pm, but the force could not move out till 9.15. The Irish Rifles leading, followed by the Northumberland Fusiliers, 74th Battery, Cape Mounted Police, one company Mounted Infantry, 77th Battery, one company Berkshire Mounted Infantry, and some engineers. Guides were taken from the Police, but it will be observed that the only regulars who were acquainted with the district brought up the rear. As Major Pollock points out, it is strange that the four companies of the Berkshire, then at Queenstown, did not form part of the expedition, seeing they had constructed the defences at Stormberg, and their officers doubtless knew every inch of the ground. Captain Tennant of the Intelligence Department, who is also said to have known the ground, was also left in camp. The infantry marched with fixed bayonets. The Boers were not expected to make a cavalry onslaught, and why this additional strain was laid on the men does not appear. It had been intended to halt at Goosen's farm, some two miles short of the position, rest there a few hours, and attack that—the south-east portion—at dawn; but the general seems to have changed his mind as to this, and when en route he decided to attack on the west side, necessitating a change of direction, which took the column off the main road into difficult country. Part of the column, coming up some distance behind, actually continued on the originally intended road, and would have marched in innocence into the Boer position had they not been warned by Major Pollock.
At 3.45 the Irish Rifles, still in fours, were fired on from a strong position. The despatch states that thereupon "three companies of the Royal Irish Rifles formed to the left and occupied a kopje; the remainder of the battalion and the Northumberland Fusiliers advanced up a steep hill against the enemy's position. The artillery was ordered forward to the kopje occupied by the three companies Royal Irish Rifles, and in crossing a nullah one of the guns unfortunately stuck and was temporarily abandoned. The team was subsequently shot down, and it was impossible to get the gun away. The two batteries took up position, one on and the other immediately west of the kopje. The Mounted Infantry endeavoured to turn the Boer right, but fell back on the kopje occupied by the three companies Royal Irish Rifles. After about half an hour the officer commanding 2nd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, finding his position untenable, gave the order to retire across the open to a ridge beyond, but a large proportion of his men, and also of the Royal Irish Rifles, remained behind (that is, in front), and were eventually taken prisoners".
In his evidence before the court of inquiry, printed in the proceedings of the War Commission, Captain Fletcher, of the Northumberland Fusiliers, said "that, by edging to the left flank, he had taken his men halfway up the kopje. He then saw a retreat going on below, but he himself had no such orders, and there was nothing, so far as he could judge, to prevent him from going straight up the hill. Then the British began shelling their own troops, and he was compelled to retire to the base of the hill, where he remained and subsequently surrendered".
The officers and men were exonerated. One of the courts added, "There seems to have been great confusion and lack of definite orders".
About 6 am the retirement on Molteno commenced. At first it was orderly and creditable, but soon, owing to the utter exhaustion of the men, became straggling and disorderly.
The Fusiliers' casualties were nearly 400, of whom 12 were killed and about 70 wounded. Six officers were among the prisoners.
It is painful to have to mention the details of this defeat, but as it involved practically the destruction of two fine battalions, in justice to them the causes of the disaster have to be pointed out.
On 19th December the shattered remnant of "the Northumberland Fusiliers departed for East London".
It was a considerable time before the battalion was in a fit state to take part in active operations at the front, and unfortunately in their next prominent appearance they were to be associated with a disaster.
In Lord Roberts' despatch of 10th October 1900, dealing with the escape of De Wet from the Brandwater basin and the steps taken to pursue him, his lordship mentions that the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers were about the end of July taken from the garrison of Bloemfontein and put into a brigade under Hart, who was then assisting to enclose De Wet in the Reitzburg Hills (see 1st Northumberland Fusiliers). In September 1900 the brigade of General Clements was broken up, and he was given a column to operate in the Megaliesberg range, chiefly between Rustenburg and Krugersdorp. His force consisted of the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, 2nd Worcestershire Regiment, 1st Border Regiment, 2nd Yorkshire Light Infantry, 900 mounted troops under Colonel Ridley, and the 8th Battery RFA. Much hard and useful work was done, but, as a rule, the enemy retired and would not fight. He was waiting for an opportunity.
That came in December, when Clements was out with only a part of his force, and the Boers had been able to gather a very large body. The words of the despatch are: "General Clements' force, which had encamped immediately south of Nooitgedacht Pass (in the Megaliesberg Mountains, NW of Pretoria), was attacked before daylight on 13th December 1900 by the combined forces of Delarey and Beyers. Four companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who were holding the ridges overlooking the camp, were surrounded and captured by the enemy. The loss of the outpost rendered the camp untenable, and though the Boers suffered heavy loss in pressing home their attack, General Clements found himself obliged to fall back on Commando Nek". The attacking force was probably about 4000. The losses of the Fusiliers in killed and wounded were about 100, and neither Lord Kitchener nor General Clements seemed to be at all dissatisfied with the defence made; and it is satisfactory to know that 1 officer and 12 men were mentioned in despatches for exceptional gallantry.
After this the battalion had little fighting.
Lord Kitchener's despatch of 8th March 1901, para 4, and his telegrams at time, also letter from 'The Standard' correspondent, who gave a clear account. He said, that in addition to the four companies of the Fusiliers on the berg, two companies were with the baggage, near which were the 4'7 gun and two sections of the 8th Battery. Eight hundred yards west were the 2nd Mounted Infantry, Kitchener's Horse, the Fife, Devon, and Sussex Yeomanry, and four guns of P Battery. On the extreme left were 400 Yorkshire Light Infantry. The Mounted Infantry were very heavily attacked at dawn, but the enemy was repulsed. Firing was then heard on the berg, and a message came asking assistance. The Yeomanry were sent. Before they got to the top of the kloof the Boers held the position, and the Yeomanry had very heavy casualties. Clements and the remainder of his force by a splendid effort saved the guns and reached a position of comparative safety.
- Next >>