It is an historical fact that for many years prior to 1899 there had been strained political relations between the Boers of the Transvaal and the Britishers, particularly the so-called “Uitlanders” and the Mining Magnates of Johannesburg. I shall not attempt to discuss, here, the circumstances of that dispute. I shall simply try to place on record the story of my experience as a soldier in the Border Mounted Rifles during the campaign that followed President Kruger’s ultimatum to the British Empire, of which we Natalians were then loyal citizens.
It was during the forenoon of the 29th September, 1899, that the Border Mounted Rifles received orders to mobilise and proceed forthwith to Pietermaritzburg, ostensibly for the purpose of undergoing a special period of Peace time training. That those orders were promptly obeyed is shown by the fact that although its members consisted mainly of farmers, many of whom lived in the remote parts of the Districts of Ixopo, Polela, Harding, Port Shepstone and Umzinto, the Regiment had assembled at full strength (approximately 300 men) in Pietermaritzburg by 3 O’clock in the afternoon of the 30th September, 1899. I think it must be conceded that, in view of the fact that this involved rides on horseback, in heavy marching order, for distances varying from 60 to 150 miles, the feat was a remarkably fine one and afforded striking testimony to the stamina and mobility of both men and horses in those far off days. It is doubtful if a more expeditious mobilisation could be effected even in the present age of mechanised transport.
On arrival in Pietermaritzburg we found much activity in Natal Volunteer circles, the local Regiments, namely, the Natal Field Artillery, the Natal Carbineers and the Natal Royal Rifles having been also mobilised. It was then that we learned that much more serious duties than ordinary Peace time training were in store for us, and that our immediate destination was the Northern borders of Natal.
From Pietermaritzburg we were conveyed by rail to Ladysmith and our three mounted Regiments - the Natal Carbineers, Natal Mounted Rifles and the Border Mounted Rifles - had assembled there by 7 p.m. on the 2nd October, 1899. We pitched our tents, small two man “Bivvies”, in private gardens and open spaces, at the lower end of Ladysmith town. The Border Mounted Rifles, together with our horses, occupied the grounds of Mr. George Tatham and the other Regiments were camped nearby. Ladysmith in those days was garrisoned by British Cavalry and Infantry Regiments, who were housed in a camp known as “Tin Town” lying to the north west of the town.
On the 12th October, 1899, the three Natal Mounted Regiments left camp independently of each other to carry out patrol duties along the Natal - Orange Free State border. Our own duty was to patrol the foothills of the Drakensberg between Mont Aux Sources and Tintwa Mountain. Our first bivouac was at Dewdrop, on the farm of Corporal William Leathern, a veteran but still active member of the Natal Carbineers, who, after our disbandment, helped me to form the Bergville troop of the Carbineers. I still have vivid memories of the miserable night spent at that camp. It had rained heavily during our march out and continued to do so intermittently throughout the night. As we had no cover, other than that afforded by our great coats, our plight, as can be imagined was unenviable. Dewdrop became our advanced base and it was from there that parties of men were sent out to patrol along the foothills of the Drakensberg.
On the 15th October, 1899, unmistakable signs of activity on the part of the Republican army were observed by our scouts and on the 17th October patrols of the Natal Carbineers and Border Mounted Rifles were fired on in the vicinity of Van Reenen’s Pass.
During the night of the 15th October, 1899, advice was received from the O.C. Troops in Ladysmith that the enemy had penetrated between us and Ladysmith town, and, consequently, it was no longer practicable for us to return to town by the direct road. We were ordered to retire from our advanced post to Ladysmith by whatever route remained open to us. That necessitated a circuitous journey across country that could not be negotiated by our mule drawn commissariat wagons. Consequently, the drivers of the vehicles, after being told of the position, were instructed to attempt to return to town along the main road. Our journey back to base was made during the hours of darkness and I have no clear memory of the route we followed. We reached Ladysmith in the early hours of the 19th October, 1899, and to our amazement (and joy) found the transport and commissariat, which had been virtually abandoned at Dewdrop, awaiting us! It transpired that the wagons had enjoyed an uninterrupted journey back to town and that the report that we had been cut off from our main base was false.
On the 21st October, 1899, the thunder of big guns reached us from the direction of Elandslaagte, and we learned the next day, from men who had taken part, that a battle had been fought at Elandslaagte between troops of the Imperial garrison, with whom were the Imperial Light Horse, and the advanced forces of the enemy.
On the 24th October we experienced our first baptism of fire when we came into conflict with the invading army at Modderspruit. The Border Mounted Rifles made contact with the enemy on the slopes of the Tinta Nyoni Hill, the higher bastions of which were strongly held by the Boers. Orders to retire from our position were received at 4 p.m. When we reached the place where our horses had been linked I found that my mount had broken away from the rest, when the linked animals were shelled by Boer Artillery and had galloped back to town. I was, however, carried from the battlefield, pick-a-back on the horse of Corporal F. O. Howes (later Major F. O. Howes). To get clear and out of rifle range we had to gallop across terrain without cover of any sort, and during that dash Howes’ horse was hit in its tail but was not seriously hurt. Our route back to town took us through the farm of Mr. Walter Pepworth, which had been hurriedly evacuated by its owner. We found, there, a stock of beer and lost no time in consuming it. It was while “swigging” from a bottle that Tropper Colin Stuart was hit in his thigh by a spent Boer bullet. We suffered several casualties during the operation at Tinta Nyoni but only Trooper S. Brown of our Harding troop was killed.
We afterwards learned that these operations were designed to aid the withdrawal of the Imperial Garrison from Dundee to Ladysmith, after the Battle of Talana. That this object was achieved is illustrated by the fact that the Dundee Garrison, commanded by General Yule, reached Ladysmith on the 25th October, 1899, without being intercepted.
It soon became obvious, even to the rank and file, that the Boer armies were converging on Ladysmith in great strength from the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. However, it was not until the 30th October (afterwards referred to as “Black Monday”) that a determined attempt was made to stem the tide. On that day our forces joined issue with the enemy on a battle front extending from Lombard’s Kop, some six miles to the north east of Ladysmith, to Nicholson’s Nek, which lies to the north west of the town. We, of the Border Mounted Rifles, occupied the farm of Mr. Joseph Farquahar, which lay behind Lombard’s Kop. We were not at any time within rifle range of the enemy, but came under fire from a big gun posted on Pepworth’s Hill. Our only casualty was the wounding of Trooper A. Stuart of the Highflats troop, who sustained two broken ribs when hit by a fragment of a heavy shell.