On returning from the North-West Frontier of India at the close of the Tirah Expedition, 1897-8, the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, which had served with distinction under the command of Colonel J.H. Yule in the campaign against the Afridi clans, was ordered to proceed from Peshawar to Jullunder, at which place it was quartered in 1898 and in the summer months of 1899, during which time certain companies and detachments were furnished for duty at Dalhousie, Kasauli, and Ghora Dakka (Murree Hills), and located during the hot weather at these places.
Towards the latter end of August, 1899, news from South Africa appeared ominous, and war seemed likely to break out between England and the Transvaal.
On the 8th September, 1899, confidential instructions were received from army head-quarters at Simla ordering the Regiment to get ready to move at short notice to South Africa, and a few days later further orders were received to entrain on the 16th September for Bombay en route to the Transvaal, which country the Regiment was destined not to reach for some months, and then only after severe fighting.
The companies quartered at Dalhousie and Ghora Dakka with difficulty joined the head-quarters at Jullunder before the 16th, and the following marches are worthy of record:—
The Dalhousie detachment marched to Pathankote, a distance of 54-1/4 miles, in two days. Major Curry, who was in command, gave each man a coolie for his baggage, and ordered the men to get to Duneera the first day the best way they could. At Duneera they halted for the night, and the next day pushed on in the same manner to Pathankote, where they immediately entrained and proceeded to Jullunder.
The Ghora Dakka detachment under Lieutenant Emerson marched to Rawal Pindi, a distance of fifty-four miles, in two days, and then entrained for Jullunder.
No men fell out in either party, and considering the time of year and the intense heat, they were fine performances.
Some officers were on leave in Cashmere, and only arrived at Jullunder as the Regiment was entraining.
On September 16th, 1899, the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, under the command of Major C.W. Park, left Jullunder by rail for Bombay with a strength as under:—
25 officers, 1 warrant officer, and 842 sergeants, rank and file.
The following officers accompanied the battalion:—
Major C.W. Park, commanding.
Major M.C. Curry, second in command.
Captain M.G. Jacson.
Captain J.O. Travers.
Captain E.C. Wren.
Captain E.M. Morris.
Lieutenant P.H. Price-Dent.
Lieutenant J.E.I. Masterson.
Lieutenant A.F. Dalzel.
Lieutenant N.Z. Emerson.
Lieutenant G.H.I. Graham.
Lieutenant T.B. Harris.
2nd Lieutenant G.I. Watts.
2nd Lieutenant D.H. Blunt.
2nd Lieutenant H.R. Gunning.
2nd Lieutenant S.T. Hayley.
2nd Lieutenant H.W.F. Twiss.
Captain and Adjutant H.S.L. Ravenshaw.
Captain and Quartermaster H. Honner.
Warrant Officer Sergeant-Major G.E. Mitchell.
The following officers were attached for duty to the battalion:—
Major Burnside, R.A.M.C., in medical charge.
Lieutenant E.G. Caffin, Yorkshire Regiment. Lieutenant H.W.R. Cowie, Dorset Regiment. Lieutenant A.M. Tringham, The Queen's West Surrey Regiment. Lieutenant J.A. Byrne, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Lieutenant E.E.M. Walker, Somersetshire Light Infantry.
The following officers were absent from the battalion on leave in England:—
Captain W.B. Lafone. Captain G.M. Gloster. Lieutenant H.N. Field.
Colonel J.H. Yule, commanding the battalion, was appointed to the command of the Indian Infantry Brigade, South Africa, with the temporary rank of brigadier-general. Major A.G. Spratt was placed in charge of the depot and details left at Jullunder.
The Regiment arrived without incident on September 21st at Bombay, having halted, for a few hours only, at the following places:—
On September 17th at Aligarh. 18th at Jhansi. 19th at Hoshangabad. 20th at Deolali.
Embarkation took place immediately on arrival, the transport Sutlej taking five companies, head-quarters, band and drums, under Major C.W. Park; and the transport City of London taking three companies under Major M.C. Curry.
On the latter vessel sailed also Sir George White's Staff and the Staff of the Indian Infantry Brigade.
The Sutlej sailed at noon on September 21st, and it was reported that the ship was under sealed orders, and that her destination was Delagoa Bay.
The days on board were occupied in keeping the men fit with physical drill, free gymnastics, etc., and with instruction in first-aid to the wounded and the use of the field-dressing and the method of adjusting it.
On September 28th Agalega Island was sighted, and on the 30th the ship was off the east coast of Madagascar.
On the 2nd October the S.S. Purnea with the 60th Rifles on board was spoken, and communication by flag signal established, both vessels inquiring for news. The Sutlej was the last to leave port, but had nothing new to communicate.
At 7 a.m. on October 5th, in rough and foggy weather, the Sutlej arrived off the coast of Africa, and the fog lifting about midday, she ran down the coastline for two hours, and arrived outside the bar at Durban.
The ships conveying the 60th Rifles and the 53rd Battery arrived an hour later. The Sutlej waited till 2 p.m. to enter the harbour, and arrived alongside the quay at 4 p.m., when disembarkation commenced at once in torrents of rain and heavy wind squalls.
A deputation of the Durban "West of England" Association met the Regiment on arrival and presented an address.
The first news received on landing was that war had not yet been declared, but that it was inevitable, that President Kruger had seized half a million of money on its way from Johannesburg to the Cape, and that orders had been given by him to shoot any one crossing the frontier. This may or may not have been true; a good deal of perfectly reliable information was being circulated about this time.
On the night of October 5th-6th the Regiment left in three trains for Ladysmith. The rain and cold caused some inconvenience to the men, as they were packed into open trucks, and obtained neither shelter nor sleep. They were new to the game then, but they saw the inside of many a coal truck later.
The journey to Pietermaritzburg was in the nature of a triumphal procession, for at various points along the line small knots of old men women and children, waving Union Jacks, cheered the troops most lustily as the trains passed.
A remark frequently heard was "How glad they are to see us," and it was evident that these people at least, who were interested and possessed homes in Natal, had not underrated the power and intentions of the Transvaal. The Regiment had an enthusiastic reception, as indeed did all troops passing to the front, flags and handkerchiefs being waved from every house farm and village. At some stations where a short stop was made to allow of other trains getting on ahead, tea and refreshments were given out free, by willing hands, to the soldiers in the trucks.
Trains were running with about 500 to 600 yards distance between them.
On October 6th between 7 and 8 a.m. the trains conveying the Regiment reached Pietermaritzburg, and here the men had breakfast. Pushing on again with as little delay as possible and passing Estcourt at about 3 p.m., and Colenso about 4 p.m., Ladysmith was reached at 6 p.m.
Detraining took place at once, and the Regiment marched off to Tin Town, about two miles distant, where camp was pitched in the dark.
The infantry at this time in Ladysmith consisted of:—
The Gordon Highlanders. The Devonshire Regiment. The Gloucester Regiment. The Liverpool Regiment.
Rumours of war and warlike preparation on the part of the Boers were continually being circulated, and at daybreak on October 11th the Transvaal Boers crossed the frontier of Natal 18,000 strong with fourteen guns.
On October 12th, at 2 p.m., orders were received for the Regiment to prepare at once to go out as part of a flying column towards Acton Holmes to check the advance of the Free State Boers, who were reported to be crossing the Biggarsberg by Vanreenen's Pass; and at 2 a.m. a force consisting of four regiments of cavalry, four batteries R.A., and three regiments of infantry (Liverpools, Gordons, and Devons) left Ladysmith, and after great delay reached Dewdrop at 9 a.m.
The cavalry having been sent on to gain touch, failed however to do so, and the column returned at once to Ladysmith. The information turned out to be incorrect.
On the return march the Regiment was joined by Captain W.B. Lafone and Lieutenants Field and Green, who had arrived from England.
On Sunday, October 15th, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who had arrived about two days previously, marched out of the Tin Camp Ladysmith to entrain for Dundee, which place it was reported the Transvaal Boers were threatening; and on the same day the news was confirmed that the armoured train at Mafeking had been twice attacked.
It was said that our khaki uniform had completely nonplussed the Boers, and that they had expected to meet us coming on in red, as in the days gone by, and that they were consequently rather surprised and annoyed.
The Liverpool Regiment, 18th Hussars, and one battery left Ladysmith by road for Colenso on October 18th, the Manchester Regiment, the Devons, and Natal mounted troops covering their march from the direction of Vanreenen's Pass. Refugees continually coming through into Ladysmith from Acton Holmes during the day, reported fighting going on between Boers and Natal Carbineers.
On its return to Ladysmith the same day, the Regiment moved from the Tin Town Camp and encamped on the football ground under the convent hill, and towards sunset the whole army marched out of Ladysmith into strategical positions outside the town. The Regiment at this time was reserve battalion.
On October 19th the Boers cut the telegraph wire between Dundee and Ladysmith, and captured near Elandslaagte Station a train containing forty tons of flour consigned to the force at Dundee, and the following morning the Devons, Gordons, one battery, 5th Lancers, and some Colonial mounted infantry, moved out towards Modder Station on the Ladysmith-Newcastle road.
At about 11 a.m. news was received that a fierce battle was being fought at Dundee, and that a large force of Free State Boers was advancing towards Ladysmith from Bester's Station, having crossed the Vanreenen's Pass. The column was halted about four miles out of Ladysmith, and three companies of the Devons under Captain Travers were sent to hold Pepworth Hill on the flank threatened by the Free State Boers. But at 4 p.m. Sir George White came out and joined the force, and he ordered the column back into Ladysmith.
He gave an account of the fighting at Dundee, which he had just received. Dundee Camp was aroused in the morning by shells being pitched into its midst. The artillery came into action, and the 60th Rifles and Dublin Fusiliers were then sent to capture the position, which was occupied by 4000 Boers. This was gallantly carried. Another column of Boers was then turned on to, and at 1.30 p.m. the enemy broke. Major-General Penn-Symons was mortally wounded, and Major-General Yule had taken over command at Dundee.
By next day a detachment of Boers had reached the neighbourhood of Modder Station and had taken up a position near Elandslaagte.
This detachment consisted of some 650 Boers, with two guns, under the leadership of General Koch, who was charged with the task of cutting off the retreat of the forces at Glencoe and Dundee, and who had been sent forward for that purpose. General Koch had at the same time practically joined hands with the Free State Boers, who were in the neighbourhood of Bester's Station on the Ladysmith-Harrismith line.
In order to reoccupy Elandslaagte and to secure General Yule's line of retreat, Sir George White ordered out a force consisting of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, of which four companies of the Regiment formed a part, under the command of General French. These companies went out in the morning by train under Major Curry, and detrained near Modder Station.
One company and a Maxim gun under Captain Jacson and a squadron 5th Lancers were sent at 11 a.m. by road to Pepworth Hill to guard the left flank of General French's force against the Free State Army, which might seriously threaten General French's communications with Ladysmith.
At 1 p.m. further reinforcements were sent out to General French, and the three remaining companies of the Regiment were ordered to proceed by train to Modder Station to join the wing under Major Curry. The seven companies were then under the command of Major Park.
The Boers occupied two cones of some low hills overlooking Elandslaagte railway station. General French's artillery came into action on some high ground 4400 yards distant from the Boer position, and between the two forces was an open undulating plain affording little or no cover, and across which the attack had to be delivered.
The Gordon Highlanders and Manchesters were to attack round the Boers' left flank, whilst the Devons were to make a frontal attack. From the nature of the position which they had taken up, no commanding positions affording flanking fire and protection to their flanks were obtainable by the Boers. These were open and could be easily threatened by the cavalry and the mounted infantry.
The Boers had two guns in position on one of the two cones, and with these guns they did good execution, knocking over a limber of one of French's batteries at the second shot, and practically before his guns came into action.
General French's force, now considerably augmented, marched off at 2.30 p.m. The 1st Devon Regiment was formed in company column at fifty paces as a reserve to the Manchester Regiment. After proceeding about a mile heavy firing was heard on the right front, direction was changed half-right, and the Regiment was then ordered to form for attack on the left of the Manchesters, and to take up a front of 500 yards.
Three companies were placed in the firing-line and supports under Major Park, and four companies in reserve under Major Curry. At about 3.15 p.m. the firing-line reached the top of a low hill, and came in sight of the enemy's position distant about 4400 yards. Here a halt of a quarter of an hour was made, and at 3.30 p.m. orders were received by the Regiment to make a frontal attack on the position, to advance to within effective rifle range, and to then hold on till a flank attack by the Manchesters and Gordons came in on the right. The ground between the Regiment and the position sloped slightly up to the foot of the low rocky hills, on which the enemy was posted. There was no cover of any kind, except a few ant-heaps, in the first half of the distance.
The firing-line advanced keeping intervals and covering a front of about 600 yards, the centre being directed on to a conical hill at the back of the enemy's camp. The reserve followed in column of companies, in single rank, at fifty paces distance between companies. The enemy's guns opened on the Regiment at once with shrapnel, but most of the shells went high, only one striking the reserve companies.
A steady advance to about 1200 to 1300 yards from the position was made, when, the rifle fire becoming rather heavy, fire was opened by section volleys. The light was bad, and it was very difficult to see the enemy or estimate the distances. In a few minutes the supports reinforced, and the firing-line then pushed on to the foot of the slope, and established itself in a shallow ditch 800 to 900 yards from the position. Here it held on, firing sectional volleys, till the flank attack appeared on the hill, apparently about 500 yards from the position.
An advance by companies from the right was then ordered, and, the reserve reinforcing, a further 200 yards was gained. Some bugling and shouting was then heard on the hill. A rush to 350 yards was now made, and, after a short pause to allow the men to get breath, bayonets were fixed and the position charged, four companies assaulting the detached hill on the left, the remaining three companies assaulting the hill on which the enemy's guns were. F and G Companies were the first to reach and take possession of the guns, the Gordon Highlanders coming up on the right shortly afterwards. The companies then moved on down the reverse slope and opened fire on the retiring enemy. On the detached hill only five of the enemy were found alive, and they showed a white flag as the hill was charged.
The Regiment was then re-formed, and held the detached hill during the night.
During the three hours it was under fire, the battalion kept line and intervals carefully throughout, and adjusted sights and fired as steadily as if on parade. It is to the perfect steadiness of the men and the absence of all crowding that the very small losses from the enemy's fire, which at all times was heavy, can be attributed.
The battalion's losses were:—
Captain W.B. Lafone, slightly wounded.
2nd Lieutenants Gunning, Hailey, and Green, severely wounded.
Twenty-nine non-commissioned officers and men wounded.
Parties of men were busy during the night collecting the Boer wounded and taking them down to the laager. Among them was General Koch, who was badly hit in several places. He died of his wounds a few days afterwards in Ladysmith.
The losses of the Boers were estimated at 62 killed, 150 wounded, and 184 prisoners.
The force was moved back into Ladysmith early on the 22nd morning, the infantry by rail, and cavalry by road. The company of the Regiment and Maxim gun, which had been on Pepworth Hill during the day and the following night, got back to camp the same afternoon.
The 23rd was given up to rejoicings and congratulations over the victory, and the two Boer flags which were captured were displayed outside the officers' mess tent.
The Free State Army had by now come across to the east, and were in the neighbourhood of Modder Station, and on October 24th a column was again ordered out with the object of assisting General Yule's force in from Dundee.
This column consisted of the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, Natal Carbineers, Border Mounted Rifles, Imperial Light Horse, Devons, Liverpools, Gloucesters, 60th Rifles, and twenty guns, in all about 5500 men.
The enemy was found posted on Tinta Inyoni Mountain, on the summit of which they brought a gun into action and fired on to the head of Sir G. White's force, which was in column of route on the road, but without doing any damage. The action began at 8.30 a.m.
At the commencement of the action the battalion was in reserve, and was ordered to extend and lie down at the foot of the first slope facing the enemy's position, and some 300 yards north-west of the railway line, sending scouts to the crest of the ridge to watch the front. Four companies were shortly afterwards ordered to advance in attack formation, forming their own supports, and to place themselves on the left of the Gloucester Regiment, which was in front of the Regiment at the time. The Regiment was then on the extreme left of the firing-line. The four companies of the reserve worked round under cover to a small nullah about 300 yards on the left and then advanced up it. The firing-line advanced, under slight rifle fire, across a rocky plateau till they gained a small ridge overlooking the front, and opened fire by section volleys on to a ridge about 800 yards in front, from which a rather heavy fire was coming.
The Maxim gun under Lieutenant Price-Dent came into action in rear of the left of the line and fired at the enemy to the left front.
The enemy's fire from this ridge was soon silenced, and from that time the only objective the line had was a few scattered Boers and their horses on the rear slope of the high hill to the left front, some 2000 yards distant.
The reserve was deployed into two lines of double companies on and below a small ridge of rocks some 250 yards in rear of the firing-line. At about 2 p.m. the retirement commenced, and the battalion gradually followed the Liverpool Regiment and became rearguard. Ladysmith was reached about 3.30 p.m., after a sixteen-mile march in torrents of rain.
The casualties of the battalion during the day were:—
1 private killed.1
25 privates wounded, none dangerously.
This action was known as the action of Reitfontein.
On October 26th General Yule's force marched into Ladysmith. They had had a bad time, having marched in drenching rain, day and night, from Sunday till Wednesday. The garrison of Ladysmith gave them food on arrival, the Regiment supplying the Dublin Fusiliers (officers and men) with refreshments.
On October 27th it was reported that the Boers were nearing Ladysmith and attempting to surround the place, and a large force was ordered out by Sir George White to reconnoitre.
This reconnaissance was under the command of Colonel Ian Hamilton, and his column consisted of three cavalry regiments, three batteries, and four infantry battalions, to which was added later one infantry battalion and one battery.
Having advanced beyond the Nek between Lombards Kop and Bulwana, and having crossed the Modder Spruit on the Helpmakaar road, the Regiment was sent on outpost duty to the left front, whilst the main body of the force halted on the bank of the stream.
From the outpost line large bodies of the enemy were observed advancing over Long Hill. Boers were also seen very busy on the kopjes south of Long Hill, entrenching.
At 8 p.m. orders were received from the officer commanding the column, in which it was explained that the force was to make a night march and attack, the infantry to advance at 2 a.m.
The Boer position as seen by the Regiment on the outpost line was some three miles in length, and the point of attack was to be the extreme left of their position, viz. Farquhar's Farm.
In the opinion of some the attack would have succeeded and the evil days of the siege put back; in the opinion of others the attack could not possibly have succeeded on account of the length of the Boer position, which they had had time to strengthen and entrench, and which had not been definitely reconnoitred.
At midnight fresh orders were received from Sir George White in Ladysmith. The whole force was ordered to retire and to proceed back at once into their positions in and about the town.
It was reported that the Boers were in great numbers, some 17,000 under Joubert, and that they had their big guns with them.
The Regiment commenced their retirement as rearguard to the force at 4 a.m., and reached camp at 6.30 a.m. on October 28th.
October 29th was a Sunday, and except for rumours, which were prolific, a quiet day was spent.
The Boers were reported to be entrenching themselves a mile and a half out on the Dundee road, and at the same time the Ladysmith defences were being prepared, and blasting operations were being carried out for the construction of military roads.
The battle of Farquhar's Farm was fought on October 30th, 1899.
The whole army was ordered out at 3 a.m.
The battalion formed part of the reserve brigade under Colonel Ian Hamilton. This reserve brigade took up a position under Limit Hill, and facing Pepworth Hill from the south.
The plan of the day was to have been as follows, had everything gone as it was proposed:—
Five regiments of infantry, all the mounted troops, and four batteries of artillery were to move round the enemy's left up the Helpmakaar road towards Farquhar's Farm (the direction of the proposed night attack on the night 27th-28th) to attack and drive in his left.
Two regiments of infantry with one mountain battery were to move off to the left of the British position to hold the enemy's right (which comprised the whole of the Free State Army), and prevent him from getting into Ladysmith.
The main attack was to be made in the centre by Colonel Ian Hamilton's Brigade by an assault on Pepworth Hill, where the Boer big guns were located, and which was the key of the position.
The above was the plan; the result and the way in which it was carried out is told in a few words.
The two infantry battalions and mountain battery, detailed to guard the left flank, knocked up against the Free State Army under Cronje (which was seen in the forenoon by the main body of General White's force, coming over Walker's Hoek) on what is known now as Surprise Hill, and which place is situated a little above and nearer Ladysmith than Nicholson's Nek. Cronje attacked them in the dark, scattered the gun mules which stampeded, and after some hours of hard fighting captured the lot.
The force on the right, under Sir George White's personal command, ran prematurely into Joubert's Transvaal Army, which had advanced from its previous and partly reconnoitred position, and which had formed up ready to receive them in a position somewhat nearer Ladysmith. It received a very heavy cross fire from big guns, field guns, machine guns, and musketry, and was put to confusion, the artillery and the cavalry having some difficulty in extricating themselves. General White took the Manchester Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders from Hamilton's Brigade to cover the retirement, and his force came back into Ladysmith fired into with wonderful accuracy, at a range of about 7000 yards, by the big gun on Pepworth. Of the remainder of Hamilton's Brigade, the Rifle Brigade (which had only arrived in Ladysmith that day) and a half battalion Devon Regiment were told off to bring up the rear, whilst the other half battalion of the Devons was left on Limit Hill, two miles outside Ladysmith, to act as a covering force.
The Naval Brigade under Lambton arrived at Limit Hill with three naval 12-pounders just as the retirement was taking place, and they were at once ordered back into the town. They returned without coming into action. As they were retiring down the road past the Piggery by the Orange Free State Junction Station, a well-aimed shell from Pepworth Hill upset one of their guns, killing some of the ox-team and a gunner who was being carried back wounded in an ambulance.
The half battalion of the regiment under Major Curry was ordered to take up a defensive position on Limit Hill and to stay there for the night.
The Boer force was within 1000 yards, and it was thought probable that they would follow up their defeated foe. Their patrols were continually coming to within 300-500 yards of the Devons' outpost line.
As the half battalion was well covered from view, it was deemed expedient and prudent not to expose their position and weakness by firing, but rather by lying quiet to trust to the Boer imagination, allowing them to think there was a larger force in position at Limit Hill than there really was. This plan was eminently successful, for except for Boer patrols the position was not threatened.
Orders were received by this half battalion at 9 a.m. on November 2nd to retire on to Ladysmith. The defenders of Ladysmith being unaware of the fact that any of their own troops were in front of them, and mistaking friend for foe, got down on their knees to fire as the companies of the Devons appeared in sight.
The half battalion which had retired with the rest of the force into Ladysmith on October 30th received orders at 10 a.m. on the 31st to strike camp, move off and form part of the garrison of section "A" of the defences of Ladysmith, under the command of Colonel W.G. Knox, C.B. The second half battalion followed them.
This private, the first man of the Regiment killed in the war, was Private Winsor. He was shot dead through the heart by a stray bullet.