Major Davies, Captain Bartlett, and Lieutenant Willis, all of whom had been doing duty with the 2nd Battalion during the relief operations, joined the battalion on the 7th with some eighty-six men who had been sent from Jullunder.
The two battalions were together for a few days only, as the 2nd Battalion after a short rest proceeded with Sir Redvers Buller's force towards Modder Spruit.
On March 10th the Ladysmith garrison was reorganized, the battalion being placed in the 7th Brigade with the Gordon Highlanders, the Manchester Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade. This brigade was commanded by Colonel W.G. Knox, C.B.
Colonel Park, unfortunately struck down with enteric fever on the last day of the siege, was shortly afterwards invalided to England. In his absence Major Davies took over command of the battalion, and Major Curry having been appointed Commandant of Ladysmith, Captain Jacson took over the duties of Second-in-Command. On March 14th the 7th Brigade marched to Arcadia, seven miles out of Ladysmith on the Vanreenen's Pass road, camping on a kopje overlooking Dewdrop Spruit. The men were then occupied in route marching and generally getting fit.
Brigadier-General Walter Kitchener arrived in camp on the 26th March and took over the command of the 7th Brigade from Colonel Knox, and on April 2nd the battalion, accompanied by General W. Kitchener, marched to Brakfontein, seventeen miles distant under Spion Kop, stopped there in camp on the 3rd, when parties of men went off to view the Boer positions on Spion Kop and Vaal-Krantz, and returned to Arcadia on the 4th.
Innumerable presents were continually arriving from England for the battalion, and the thanks of all are due especially to Mr. Young of Torquay for the indefatigable manner in which he worked, and for the numerous bundles and boxes of presents which he was instrumental in collecting and dispatching both at this time and also afterwards. All these presents were highly appreciated.
A draft of 180 men, consisting of reservists, section "D" Militia Reservists, and recruits joined the battalion on the 7th; amongst these were 120 married men.
At 11.30 a.m. on April 11th orders were received to move at once into Ladysmith, which was to be reached at 2 p.m. The reason for the sudden move was not explained. There was no transport. Out of six wagons, the complement for a battalion on light field service scale, there were only two in camp at the time. At Arcadia the battalion, in common with the rest of the brigade, was allowed tents, and told that it could have anything it liked to take with it. There was consequently a good deal more than six carts could carry.
Towards evening, after the tents had been struck, packed, and sent on ahead, and the battalion was waiting in the open for more wagons, a most violent thunderstorm came on, lasting about two hours. Ten men of one company which was holding a work on Rifleman's Ridge, between Arcadia and Ladysmith, were struck by lightning, none, however, being killed. The battalion eventually reached camp at Star Hill, just above the iron bridge outside Ladysmith, at 3 a.m. wet to the skin. It was found that the tents had arrived. These were pitched and the men turned in. The greater part of the brigade did not reach Star Hill till the following day.
On the 13th the Gordons and Devons moved camp to Hyde's Farm under Surprise Hill, the Devons proceeding next day to a camp under Thornhill's Kopje, throwing out picquets on that hill and also on another kopje further out towards Nicholson's Nek known as Devon Kopje.
From this time till May 15th the battalion remained quietly encamped under Thornhill's Kopje. Route marching and field days occupied the men most mornings, hockey and football most afternoons. The men suffered a good deal at first from jaundice, which was chiefly the result of over-eating after their long abstinence, but they got fit and recovered their strength gradually; it was, however, fully six weeks to two months before they were really ready to take the field.
In the meantime General Buller had turned the Biggarsberg, and the Boers had fallen back on Laing's Nek.
The 7th Brigade now formed part of the 4th Division under the command of Major-General Neville Lyttleton, and on May 16th the Regiment was ordered to proceed north to Modder's Spruit. Here it remained till the 20th, on which day it continued its march to Elandslaagte, and encamped near the railway station. On the 23rd, having handed in all tents and excess baggage, the Regiment marched to Sunday's River, where it joined up with the divisional head-quarters, and on the following day formed the rear-guard on the march to Black Craig Farm. Here the division encamped in the heart of the Biggarsberg.
Halting at Kalabis on the 25th, the division reached Ingagane on the 26th.
Ingagane The brigade was now split up and placed on the line of communications, and it was thought probable that the Regiment would see no more fighting and that the war would soon be brought to a conclusion. Of the four regiments in the brigade, the Manchester Regiment had been left behind to garrison Jonono's Kop and the railway line near Elandslaagte, the Devons were left to garrison Ingagane on the railway, and the Rifle Brigade was at Newcastle and between that place and Ingogo at the foot of the Laing's Nek pass. The Gordon Highlanders were at Ingogo and guarded the railway line still further north.
The Regiment itself was also split up. A detachment of one company under Captain Travers (increased afterwards to two companies) proceeded to occupy Dannhauser, and two companies under Captain Bartlett were ordered to Rooi Pint on the high ground between Ingagane and Newcastle. A battery of artillery was also stationed at this place.
The remaining companies of the Regiment, including a 9th or K company which had been created shortly after the siege, were posted on the low hill overlooking Ingagane railway station.
On June 4th the 1st Cavalry Brigade arrived to form part of the garrison of Ingagane. This brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General Burn Murdoch, who was in charge of the line of communication Newcastle-Dannhauser.
At Ingagane Hill the Regiment found itself again employed in building stone walls. Entrenchments against attack were considered necessary, for it was thought probable that the Boers would attempt to break through from the north-east of the Free State on the west and cross into Utrecht and Vryheid districts. The real danger, however, lay on the east, for the Vryheid district long remained a Boer stronghold, and parties of Boers frequently raided to the Blood River in the immediate neighbourhood of Dannhauser.
It was owing to this that on June 15th a second company was sent to reinforce Captain Travers at Dannhauser. The hill selected by Captain Travers for defence overlooked Dannhauser railway station, and commanded a large extent of ground to the east of the post. This hill was very strongly fortified, and the works on it, designed and built by Captain Travers and his men, were perhaps the best works for protection against musketry fire constructed by the Regiment during the war.
News was received daily that thousands of Boers with dozens of guns were on the eastern flank, with every intention of raiding, cutting the line, and attacking Dannhauser.
Dundee also, according to the newspapers and the evidence of native scouts, was in deadly peril from attack by Chris. Botha. It was, perhaps, on account of these rumours that a column was formed to reconnoitre Utrecht. In conjunction with another column which moved out from Ingogo, three companies of the Regiment, with the Royal Dragoons and the 5th Dragoon Guards and two field guns, moved out on the afternoon of July 1st from Ingagane and camped at Tundega Farm. On the following morning Tundega Hill was occupied by the infantry whilst the cavalry reconnoitred over the Buffalo River to Utrecht, which was distant twenty miles. This place was found occupied by about four hundred Boers, and after some skirmishing and a good deal of firing the cavalry returned with a loss of one Royal Dragoon taken prisoner. Next morning the force returned to Ingagane.
The operations were supposed to have been very successful.
By the end of July the Regiment had quite recovered tone and vigour, and was well and fit for any work, and on August 2nd, 1900, orders were received to pack up and proceed by rail the following day to Zandspruit. On the afternoon of the 3rd the Regiment entrained in coal trucks for the north. Majuba and Laing's Nek were passed next morning at dawn, and at 7.30 a.m. Zandspruit was reached.
The strength of the battalion was now 938 of all ranks. All tents and excess baggage had been returned to store, and on the 6th the Regiment marched to Meerzicht, where the remainder of General Lyttleton's 4th Division was found in bivouac. The 4th Division was now complete and ready to march north with Sir Redvers Buller.
General Buller's force moved out from Meerzicht on August 7th. For some days previously the Boers had been occupying in force some high ground known as Rooi Kopjes, a few miles north of Meerzicht, and the Gordon Highlanders had already twice been slightly engaged with them. The 7th Brigade advanced out of their camp in attack formation, the Gordons leading the advance, the Devons in support. Their objective was the Rooi Kopjes. These were found unoccupied, and, having gained the summit, the 7th Brigade were ordered to make a sweep round to the right.
The new objective was the high ground above Amersfoort. General Buller's line now occupied some five miles of front. A very high wind was blowing, and it was not for some time that the Head-quarter Staff, who at the time were with the 7th Brigade, knew that the artillery of the 8th Brigade, which had marched direct on Amersfoort, were in action, firing at some Boer guns mounted on the Amersfoort Hills. The Boers were strongly entrenched on these hills to the number of about 3000 to 4000 with fourteen guns under Chris. Botha and D. Joubert. The 7th Brigade advanced across a large undulating plain, the Devons leading. The Gordons had been sent round to the left to support Dundonald's Mounted Brigade, who had been checked by some fifty Boers. About 6000 yards from the position Boer shells began to fall among the companies of the leading battalion. One half battalion under Major Davies thereupon opened out and advanced, while the other half battalion was sent to the left under Captain Jacson, with orders to proceed as rapidly as possible to the assistance of the Gordon Highlanders, who, it was reported, were being heavily threatened by the Boers on the extreme left. With the exception of some shell fire the main advance was continued unopposed. The left half battalion of the Regiment had to make a very long detour, and on its arrival to the assistance of the Gordons it was found that the Boer force, which was threatening the left flank, was simply Dundonald's mounted troops drawing up stationary behind some rising ground.
After a stiff climb the summit of the Amersfoort Hills was reached just before dark.
It was found that the Boers had evacuated their position, on their left flank and rear being threatened by the 8th Brigade. The leading battalion of this brigade, the 60th Rifles, came under some heavy musketry fire from the houses in the town, and after several casualties, which included four officers, Major Campbell, commanding the 60th, threatened to burn the town if the firing was not discontinued. The firing then ceased, and the Boers retired to the hills north of the town.
The Boers had set fire to the long dry grass in every direction, and it was chiefly by the light of these fires that regiments, companies, and parties of mounted men found their way off the hill on a pitch-dark night.
No orders had been circulated as to where the force was to halt and bivouac for the night, and from every direction various bodies of men groped their way in the dark towards the town, in the hopes that when once there some orders might be obtained. It was late when the half battalion under Captain Jacson found its bivouac and joined hands again with that of Major Davies just outside the town. One company came in later, having unfortunately lost its way in the dark.
Some of the leading wagons of the transport, which had been sent along the direct road from Meerzicht to Amersfoort, broke down in a bad drift, thus blocking the remainder. No wagons arrived in Amersfoort that night, and the men after their long tramp, a continuous march without a halt from 7.30 a.m. till about 8.30 at night, were without greatcoats or blankets. The night was bitterly cold, with a hard frost. Gangs of men went down to the town and brought back wood. Soon fires began to light up in the Devons' and Gordons' bivouacs, which were adjoining, and for the remainder of the night groups of men sat round them trying to keep warm. The four companies of the Regiment on outpost duty suffered very severely, as they were without fires, none being allowed in the outpost line.
The force halted at Amersfoort on the following day, owing firstly to the fog which enveloped everything, and secondly to allow of the baggage train coming up. This began to arrive at 10 a.m., having been detained at the drift the whole night.
During the fog a few Boers came down from the high ground above the river and fired into the horses watering, at very close range. They failed, however, to do any damage.
On August 9th the army continued its advance. On leaving Amersfoort, a bad drift with a steep climb of half a mile on the further side was met with, and the baggage was formed into two columns. This was assisted up the hill by two companies of the Regiment, Sir Redvers Buller personally superintending. Klippaal Drift was reached late in the afternoon after a difficult march of ten miles.
General Buller's army was now on the high veldt in winter time. The cold was intense, especially at night, when there were several degrees of frost. Owing to the intense cold, two men of the Rifle Brigade died from exposure during the night.
On the following day the force continued its march to Beginderlyn Bridge. This was found intact, and there was no opposition, and the march was resumed on the 11th as far as Kleinfontein. On August 12th Ermelo was occupied, and a few of the leading Boers belonging to the place surrendered.
So far, and until Twyfelaar was reached, Buller's army received little or no opposition from the Boers. Chris. Botha, who had occupied Amersfoort, had retired east after evacuating that place, and was marching parallel to the British force and at a distance of about ten miles on its right flank. They were evidently watching Buller, probably thinking that he would turn east towards Piet Retief, where almost all their stock, sheep, and cattle had been driven, the mountainous and difficult country there being suitable for its concealment and protection.
The main body of the Boers was concentrated between Belfast and Machadodorp, north-east of Twyfelaar, in a country eminently suited for what was considered their final effort. The valley of the Komati River was exceedingly difficult country for the British army to operate over. The Boers to the end of the war were very fond of this country, and it was there, or in the vicinity towards Lake Chrissie, that several engagements took place later on, during the guerilla stage of the war, not always in favour of the British.
The town of Ermelo, which the Regiment was destined to see again on several future occasions, was left on August 13th, on the evening of which day the force reached Klipfontein. The Regiment, being rear-guard, did not reach its bivouac till after dark. Witbank was reached the following day, and communication was opened up with General French's column, fifteen miles to the north-west. Carolina could be seen eight miles away to the north-east.
The force marched next day to Twyfelaar, and here a halt was made till August 21st, in order to allow of Lord Roberts's army, which was advancing east from Pretoria along the Lorenzo Marques railway, joining hands with General Buller's army.
The rear-guard of the force was attacked by the Boers on August 21st on its march from Twyfelaar to Van Wycks Vlei. The Gordon Highlanders lost nine killed and eight wounded, and the Liverpool Mounted Infantry eight killed.
On the following morning a force consisting of Devons, Manchesters, Gordons, South African Light Horse, one field battery, and the howitzers, advanced from Van Wycks Vlei under General W. Kitchener, for the purpose of reconnoitring and driving some Boers off the hills east of General Buller's camp, so that the road for the next day's march might be cleared of the enemy. A large number of Boers was seen in the direction of Carolina, and it was supposed that Chris. Botha's force was opposed to the column. The Manchester Regiment led the advance, supported by the Devon Regiment. The former, on crossing a nek to a low underlying hill, came under a heavy rifle fire from the Boers below and across the valley, and lost two killed and nine wounded. The force returned to camp at 6 p.m.
On the following day Buller's army advanced to Geluk, some five or six miles, the battalion with the Gordons and mounted troops of Dundonald's Brigade, acting as rear-guard.
A very difficult spruit, with steep sides, was crossed, and the high hills on the further side occupied. These had been held by the Boers in strength, but they had retired on Buller's approach. As soon as the infantry of the rear-guard had arrived in camp, the mounted troops of the rear-guard were attacked rather sharply, but they managed to hold their own and to beat off the Boers. Two companies of the Liverpool Regiment, who formed part of the advance guard, fell into an ambush and lost considerably, leaving, it was reported, some eighty men either killed, wounded, or prisoners in the hands of the Boers. Shortly after arrival in camp, five companies of the Regiment were sent out on outpost duty, taking up a short line and entrenching—two companies were entrenched in front and furnished sentries, with three companies entrenched in rear in support.
On August 24th and 25th the force stood fast, exchanging occasional big gun and musketry fire with the Boers. Information was received that Lord Roberts had entered Belfast on the 24th, thus practically joining hands with Sir Redvers Buller.
The position taken up by the Boers already referred to, an immensely powerful one, straddled the Pretoria-Lorenzo railway east of Belfast and west of Machadodorp. Botha had
taken up a front of some fifty miles in length, and his force numbered about 5000 men. His right rested on the broken mountainous country of Elandskloof to the north, and his left on the mountains overlooking the Komati to the south. His centre was at Bergendal Farm and the rugged and precipitous hills in the rear of the farm, through which wound the railway and road, his line of retreat, quite concealed from the fire and view of the British force. On the extreme left a big gun with two or three smaller pieces were mounted, but these were useless to give much support to the centre, as they were too distant. The line of retreat to Komati Poort, which, from the nature of the country, could not be threatened except by an extended movement round the north or south, lay along the Belfast-Machadodorp road and the railway line.
Briefly, the course of the two days' battle may be described as follows:—
While Pole Carew threatened the centre at Belfast and the position north of the railway, French was sent with his cavalry division still further north to threaten the Boer line of retreat towards Pilgrim's Rest, and their right flank. Buller attacked the Boers' left with the intention of driving it in and getting behind their centre on their line of retreat. He on the first day, however, could make no impression on them, and the two forces held on to the position they were in for the night. On the morning of the second day Buller, leaving a brigade of infantry and Dundonald's mounted brigade to watch the Boers' left, moved across their front under cover of the undulating slopes of ground, and made an attack at Bergendal Farm and Kopje. After a sharp fight this was carried, and the Boers retired all along their line in the direction of Machadodorp.
It is necessary to state in detail the part played by the Regiment.
On the morning of Sunday, August 26th, Buller's force was put in motion. The Regiment was advance guard to the division. When about half a mile from the camp, the four advanced and extended companies under Captain Jacson came under fire from some high ground on their right flank, losing two men. Major Davies, proceeding along this ridge of high ground with the remainder of the Regiment, forced the Boers posted there off the hills. The advance guard companies then continued their march with orders to make Bergendal Farm their point, but not to go beyond it.
When these companies had proceeded some four or five miles, it was found that General Buller's main body had changed direction to the right and had gone east. On retracing their steps, the companies with great difficulty ascertained the whereabouts of Buller's force. Sir Redvers was now attacking the Boer left within a mile or two of his former camping ground. A message was then received stating that the Regiment was at that time a left flank guard to Buller's army, and that the former advance guard companies were to join the remainder of the Regiment.
The Boers, opposed to Buller in very considerable numbers, were sangared on some low hills about 800 yards distant from and in front of and below the high ridge over which his force had to advance. Buller made his dispositions behind this high ridge. The reverse slope was completely raked by the Boer fire, and no cover except that afforded by some ant-hills was obtainable. The dropping bullets followed the form and slope of the hill, so that neither front nor rear was secure.
As soon as the Regiment was formed up, an order was sent to advance. Captain Emerson with fifteen men extended, rushed down the forward slope under a heavy fire, and took cover behind some ant-hills. The moment the men showed over the crest line they were met by a hail of bullets, and further advance was impossible.
Later, another order was sent to advance, but owing to the want of cover it was found impossible for the line to make headway in the face of the fire brought to bear upon it. It was not until the Howitzer Battery was brought into action late in the day, to cover the retirement of the advanced companies, that Captain Emerson and his men were able to get back. This they did under a very heavy fire from rifles and machine guns.
One company under Lieutenant Harris, which had been moved off to the right, had advanced and got into an exposed place. The men took cover behind ant-hills, and remained there for the rest of the day. Three companies had been moved to the neighbourhood of the guns. These came under shell fire from the Boer guns and had some casualties, amongst whom was Colour-Sergeant Burchell, who was shot through the shoulder. Under General Buller's direct supervision one company was ordered forward. Immediately their four scouts showed over the crest line a storm of bullets met them, and they were all hit. The four scouts were found dead on the second day afterwards by the Liverpool Mounted Infantry.
Dusk found the companies posted as under: Three companies extended on the ridge on the left, with two companies extended in support on the rear side of the hill. One company was extended on the ridge in the centre, whilst three companies were near the guns, three-quarters of a mile away on the right. One man was killed and one wounded just at dark by unaimed fire and by the last shots fired. The companies on the ridge retired to the crest of the hill after dark and took up an entrenched outpost line for the night. Rations were then issued for the following day. It was a pitch-black night, and two cooks' orderlies who had gone to fetch their company's tea and sugar rations from their wagon, missed their way in the dark when returning, and walked into the Boer position, distant only a few hundred yards, and were made prisoners. These two men were the first prisoners of war lost to the battalion up to this date; and with the exception of one other prisoner, who was temporarily in the hands of the Boers in the Badfontein valley in the following year, they were the only men of the battalion taken prisoners during the war. The casualties of the battalion for the day were 6 killed, 15 wounded, and 2 prisoners.
Early the following morning the 7th Brigade, with the exception of the Manchester Regiment, moved off to the left, the Rifle Brigade, whose turn it was to lead, being in front. The guns accompanied the brigade.
There was little or no opposition till the scouts came under fire from Bergendal Kopje, or Drie Kraal as it was otherwise known. This rocky kopje was strongly fortified and held by the Boers. A Field Battery opened fire on to the kopje at about 3000 yards' range from some rising ground. Shortly afterwards the remaining guns—5-inch, 4.7's, naval 12-pounders, in all to the number of about thirty-nine—commenced pouring shells on to this one spot in the Boer position. This shelling continued for about three hours.
Very early in the morning a train had been seen coming out from Machadodorp with reinforcements. These, it was ascertained, were the Johannesburg Police, to the number of about eighty, and they formed the garrison of the kopje, about a hundred more being in the farm behind the kopje. This kopje was a small hill covered with large boulders. The rocks had been connected with large stones to form sangars, behind which the garrison found cover. A pompom was included in the armament of the position, which measured about eighty yards by forty yards only. It fell away abruptly in the rear, the farm and outbuildings lying very close under the steep rear side of the hill.
The English shells fell with terrible accuracy into the sangars, and there was an almost continuous explosion on the hill. Yet the Boers kept up their fire till the Rifle Brigade were within ten yards of them, and their pompom was in action, although partly jammed and firing single shots, till the very end. This pompom was bravely served by one man, the remainder of the gun team having been either killed or wounded. It is not known whether this plucky fellow survived or not.
General Walter Kitchener, who was commanding the infantry attack, decided to attack with the Rifle Brigade along the ridge which ended in the kopje, which was slightly above the level of the ridge. At the same time he ordered the Inniskilling Fusiliers to attack over the low ground on the Rifle Brigade's right, whilst the Gordon Highlanders and the Devonshire Regiment were held in support.
The Rifle Brigade started from the foot of the hills under which they had taken cover, and which was about 1200 yards from the Boer position, and almost immediately came under heavy musketry fire, being much exposed on the high open ridge.
They, however, continued their advance in perfect order and eventually rushed the kopje, the British shells dropping and the Boers firing till the assault had been delivered. The Inniskillings advanced across the low ground underneath the Rifle Brigade. Their advance was slightly delayed, and their delivery of the assault was consequently later than that of the Rifle Brigade. Captain Emerson with one company of the Regiment which had been told off as escort to the Maxim guns, advanced with the leading company of the Inniskillings.
The whole Boer position was evacuated as soon as their line had been penetrated by the capture of the Bergendal Kopje.
The casualties amongst the Rifle Brigade were severe, owing to the much exposed ground over which it was necessary for the attack to be delivered, and to the fact that, as the extended lines converged on to the small kopje, the men naturally became crowded and formed a better mark for the Boer rifles. They lost two officers and fourteen men killed and five officers and fifty men wounded, of whom two officers died of their wounds the following day. The Regiment had one man wounded.
The position was soon made good, although the Boers held on tenaciously to a long rocky ridge in their rear to which they had retired, till nightfall. The force bivouacked for the night near the farm.
This action was known officially as the battle of Belfast.
A quiet night was passed, and next morning, August 28th, the force occupied Machadodorp with slight opposition. The Boers were seen retreating up the road leading to Lydenburg, and on the high ground above the town they brought two big guns into action.
The Gordon Highlanders, in support of Dundonald's Mounted Brigade, were sent on through the town and occupied the high ground on the far side, and the Boers retired before them.
The Boers had made a very hurried retirement. In Machadodorp on the evening of the day of the fight, guns and cartloads of ammunition were parked in the big open space in the centre of the town. These were moved off very hurriedly on the approach of the British force, and the guns had only reached the top of the hills on the further side of Machadodorp when General Buller's infantry came in view. General Buller brought some long-range guns into action and shelled them as they ascended the hill, but without result.
From lack of efficient pursuit after the battle the evening before, and a too cautious advance in the morning, an opportunity to do the Boer forces considerable damage was apparently lost. A wagon containing pompom ammunition was captured by Dundonald's Mounted Brigade, but the pompom itself got away, notwithstanding the very slight opposition offered by the Boers.
The following day General Buller's forces reached Helvetia Farm, where General French's column and General Pole Carew's division joined up.
With the object of releasing the prisoners who had been sent by the Boers from Pretoria to Noitgedacht down the railway line towards Komati Poort, General Buller's force now turned eastwards and marched along the heights on the north side of the railway. On the first day out from Helvetia his cavalry saw some 2000 released English prisoners marching up the line towards Waterval Onder from the direction of Noitgedacht, and having been unable to obtain touch with the Boers, the force retraced their steps, and encamped some six miles from Helvetia at Vluchtfontein, and at this place a halt was made on the following day.
From here General Buller turned north, and on September 1st, advancing up the Lydenburg road, reached Badfontein on the Crocodile River. Here the army bivouacked for the night, and an advance was made up the Badfontein valley next morning, but coming into contact with the Boers who were holding the northern end of the valley, his further progress was checked. The Boer position extended along the high hills which straddled the road in a semicircular position some eight miles from Badfontein.
The Regiment formed the infantry advance guard of the army, and on reaching what was then named Redvers' Kopje and afterwards known as Devon Kopje, came under shell fire from three big guns which the Boers had brought into action on the hills above. At this place the Regiment stopped for the day, taking cover from shell fire behind the large boulders of rocks of which the kopje was composed. The remainder of Sir Redvers Buller's force returned to its old encampment of the previous night.
The two mounted brigades and one battery R.H.A., which had advanced to the foot of the hills occupied by the Boers, returned to camp at dusk.
As soon as it was dark, four companies of the Regiment were left on Devon Kopje as an advanced post, whilst the remainder of the Regiment retired to the rear of the hill and bivouacked. The kopje was entrenched and everything made comfortable for the following day. All the baggage wagons were sent back to the main camp during the night.
September 3rd, 4th, and 5th were spent quietly in position, the Boers on the 5th firing over the heads of the Regiment into the brigade camp, but doing very little damage. On the evening of the 5th a hill to the east was shelled, and after some opposition from the Boers, when Strathcona's Horse had some casualties, the hill was occupied by the 60th Rifles and the Leicester Regiment. A battery of artillery was then hauled up the steep incline to the top.
On the 6th, General Ian Hamilton having brought up reinforcements consisting of a brigade, from Belfast by way of Dullstrom, thus turning the Boers' right, General Buller advanced the following day and found that the Boers had evacuated their position. But, in ignorance of this retirement, great preparations were made for a big fight.
The Devonshire Regiment headed the advance of the infantry. It was divided into two half battalions, one half battalion under Major Davies proceeding up the road in support of the mounted troops, whilst five companies under Captain Jacson were sent more to the left to attack the large farm at the foot of the hill, with orders "to proceed as far as possible without severe loss." These manoeuvres having been accomplished in safety without a shot being fired, the force reached the top and bivouacked some two miles further on for the night. Owing to the steepness of the road the baggage did not arrive till after midnight.
Lydenburg was occupied next day without opposition, the Boers having retired to a position on Paardeplaats, a range of high and irregular hills five miles distant from and overlooking Lydenburg on the Mauchberg-Spitzkop road. From this position the Boers shelled the baggage, bursting shrapnel over it as it defiled into the open in front of the town. The train formed up and halted under cover behind a hill, and came into camp at dusk.
The following morning, September 8th, Sir Redvers Buller decided to attack the Boer position on Paardeplaats, and for this purpose he detailed General Walter Kitchener's brigade to advance up the spurs of the hills against the Boers' right, whilst General Ian Hamilton's brigade was to turn the Boers' left, the attack being covered by the artillery which proceeded up the main road in the centre.
General Kitchener's brigade moved out from Lydenburg on to the race-course. The battalion being the leading regiment deployed and advanced towards a hill jutting out into the plain, with the mounted brigade of General Dundonald working round the left. This hill was afterwards known to the Regiment as Ben Tor. As the Regiment deployed into the open it came under shrapnel fire from two big guns posted on Paardeplaats. The Regiment was, however, extended, and had only one man wounded.
The Gordon Highlanders, who were in support, marched across the Boers' front, in rear of the extended Devons, in column of companies. Several shells burst amongst them, and one shell, bursting thirty feet above graze, took their volunteer company end on and killed and wounded fifteen.
With Dundonald's men on their left flank, four companies of the Regiment under Captain Jacson advanced up the spurs without opposition, whilst Major Davies, in command of the remaining companies, climbed the spurs on Jacson's right. Little or no opposition was met with on this flank. Jacson's companies were reinforced by four companies of the Gordon Highlanders and the 60th Rifles, and at 4 p.m., when nearing the summit, a thick mist came on, and the flanking brigade halted. Meanwhile Davies, with two of his companies, had reached the top of the hill and was proceeding down the far side when the fog lifted. It was then ascertained that the Boers, under cover of the fog, had left the position to which they had clung with great determination, and had retired. The position had been turned by Ian Hamilton's right flank attack.
The thick mist saved the Boers, who would otherwise undoubtedly have lost their big guns in their retirement.
Just before dark the companies of the Regiment, which had become scattered, were collected, and Captain Jacson received an order to return with these to the old camp on the far side of Lydenburg; seven companies were thus taken down the hills over very rough country to the old camp, a distance of nearly six miles. On arrival there a message was received which stated that the army was encamped half-way up the hill towards Paardeplaats. The seven companies then returned, and finally reached camp very late. They had been marching and climbing incessantly from 7.30 a.m. till 10 p.m.
The brigades had by this time become rather intermingled. Of General Kitchener's brigade the Manchester Regiment had been left behind at Witklip, at the north end of the Badfontein valley. A garrison had also been left at Lydenburg under General Howard, consisting of the Rifle Brigade and Leicesters, with General Brocklehurst's Cavalry Brigade.
The Devonshire Regiment was now left behind at Paardeplaats, while General Buller's force, consisting of the Gordon Highlanders and the 60th Rifles, with Dundonald's Mounted Brigade, two Field Batteries, and the 5-inch guns, advanced on the 9th, the day following the capture of Paardeplaats, in the direction of the Mauchberg.
The country was extremely difficult, and the Boer guns and pompoms well served, and considerable opposition was met with in the advance.
General Buller's force reached the Mauchberg that evening and proceeded on the following day to Devil's Knuckles, down the steep Mauchberg road (known as Hell's Gate), where the two Boer big guns again narrowly escaped capture, and so on to Spitzkop, just north of Nelspruit on the Pretoria-Lorenzo Marques railway.
On the 10th four companies and two guns under Captain Jacson were ordered to the Mauchberg. The companies got off by midday, and after a stiff climb occupied the mountain just before dark. The top of the Mauchberg, 8720 feet high, was found to be very extended, and the garrison was much split up. Company forts were erected on the main features, and the place was held till the 20th, mostly in thick fog and rain.
The Mauchberg post was the terminus of the telegraph line, communication thence with General Buller's head-quarters being continued by visual signalling. The mountain was intersected by deep kloofs and ravines, into most of which the Boers had collected their families and supplies, in the hope that neither would be found. These were all disclosed from the summit of the mountain, which commanded a view of a great extent of country. General Buller succeeded in collecting a large amount of stores from these "caches."
The families of Boers who surrendered with their stock were sent into Lydenburg, together with any prisoners that had been taken.
On the 11th two of the Mauchberg companies with the two guns were ordered to proceed to Devil's Knuckles, to supply picquets for Dundonald's Mounted Brigade which was stationed there, and on September 20th the companies of the Regiment stationed at Paardeplaats marched to the Mauchberg, being relieved at the former place by the Leicesters, the remaining two Mauchberg companies proceeding to Devil's Knuckles.
On the 21st the Regiment was again united and marched with Dundonald's Brigade down the Sabi Valley, reaching Sabi Drift that evening, where the force bivouacked. The column under General Dundonald remained at Sabi Drift till the 26th awaiting the arrival of General Buller, who was returning from Spitzkop.
A story is told anent the positions out of which General Buller's infantry had turned the Boers, which goes to show the estimation in which the British infantry were held by their opponents. The words are those of General Botha, and were told to an officer of the Head-quarter Staff. "I shall give it up," he said. "I have taken up position after position which I considered impregnable; I have always been turned off by your infantry, who come along in great lines in their dirty clothes with bags on their backs. Nothing can stop them. I shall give it up."
On September 25th the remainder of General Buller's force marched into Sabi Drift, and on the 26th the army, united again, advanced north for Pilgrim's Rest. Burgher's Nek and Mac-Mac diggings were reached about noon on that day.
The pass over Burgher's Nek was held by the Boers under Gravett, Botha and the State treasure with a small escort having crossed only a few hours before, whilst a portion of their army under Viljoen retired at the same time to the north towards Pietersburg.
The infantry of the advance guard was composed of four companies of the Regiment under Captain Jacson. On reaching the foot of the pass the mounted troops were checked and the artillery came into action. The position occupied by the Boers was formidable—a long stretch of high rugged hills, with the forward slope ending precipitously. The pass lay over a Nek between two high shoulders of hills. The Boers, exceedingly well posted, occupied the hills on either side of the Nek, taking cover behind the immense boulders on the summit.
After the artillery had been bombarding the south side of the Nek for some considerable time, the mounted infantry were sent forward to occupy the hill known as Grass Kop, but
were unable to proceed. In the meantime, the four companies of the advance guard had been moved off to the left and nearer to the hills. They now got the order to attack and occupy the hill. Whilst these companies moved off under cover of the undulating ground to the foot of the hills, two companies with the Maxim gun took up a position in rear to cover the advance, firing with a range of 1700 yards at the top of the hill. Most of the artillery came into action at the same time and at the same objective. The foot of the hill was reached by the attacking force with two casualties. One company was then directed to the left to attack round the flank, and the ascent of the precipitous side of the hill was commenced. Crawling up a goat's track in single file, on hands and knees, through dense bush, the first portion of the ascent was accomplished, and the little force formed up under a spur to get breath before debouching into the open for the final rush to the top. After a short halt the advance was continued to the summit, the companies on their way coming under a smart shell fire from their own guns (happily without casualties), which were bursting shrapnel with wonderful precision between the two leading companies. Just before reaching the top the flanking company, coming in from the left with a well-timed advance, joined the general advance to the summit. It was found that the Boers had retired, and fire was brought to bear on them as they descended the rear slope of the hill. The high hill on the left of the pass was then occupied, and the Nek over which the road passed cleared of Boers.
A heliograph message from Sir Redvers Buller was received on the summit, "Well done Devons!" and in Lord Roberts' official dispatch for the day it was notified that General Buller had occupied Burgher's Nek, and that "the pass had been turned by a half battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, well led by Captain Jacson."
The four companies bivouacked on the top. Efforts were made by those down below to get food and blankets up to them, but owing to the steepness and difficulties of the climb and the darkness, it was found impossible.
The head-quarter companies of the Regiment were engaged on outpost duty at the foot of the pass, where the army had bivouacked, almost all the men being on duty.
On the following day the march was resumed, the head-quarter companies of the Regiment being rear-guard to the force. The companies on the hill were relieved by two companies of the Regiment under Captain Wren. The road was extremely bad and crossed by many drifts, which caused considerable delay, and it was not till the early hours of morning that the rear-guard companies got into camp. The bivouac was formed amongst the hills, some five miles from Pilgrim's Rest, which had been occupied the previous day by Strathcona's Horse.
On the 28th the march was continued through Pilgrim's Rest to the foot of Morgenzon Hill, the mounted troops surprising the Boers on the summit and putting them to flight.
The baggage was safely brought up the six miles of steep hill on the following day. The road, which was the old coaching highway Pilgrim's Rest-Lydenburg, was found in
excellent condition, but it was heavy work for the oxen, and all wagons were double spanned. The force camped on the summit, and halted there on the 30th.
A good number of Boers were reported in the vicinity to the west and north, but they did not make their presence felt and Sunday was spent quietly.
On October 1st Morgenzon was left and the march continued towards Kruger's Post and Lydenburg. It was a long, dusty road through narrow valleys. Opposition was encountered at the bifurcation of the Lydenburg-Morgenzon and Lydenburg-Ohrigstadt roads, which, however, was soon overcome, the Boers retiring to the hills out of reach of the guns, and Kruger's Post was reached at 2 p.m.
Shortly after the Regiment had settled itself in its bivouac a Boer big gun opened on to it from a hill about 6000 yards distant, and not very far from the road. This gun also shelled the wagons as they came into camp, necessitating their halting under cover and coming in later. In the evening, about 6.30, the Boers brought another gun into action on a hill due west of the camp, and shelled the cavalry and infantry bivouacs for one and a half hours in the dark. After several shells had pitched into their midst the Regiment moved out and formed up into two long lines and entrenched.
It was whilst marching out to take up this position in the dark that a shell emptied itself into the head of one company, killing Lieutenant Cumin and severely wounding Captain Luxmoore and one man. The South African Light Horse and Strathcona's Horse had a number of casualties amongst their men and horses.
The Boers by a skilful manoeuvre had kept their guns concealed, ready to be brought into action as soon as General Buller's army had settled itself quietly in its bivouac. They expended some cartloads of ammunition in this manner without interference. In the early hours of the following morning a band of volunteers ascended the hill to capture the guns. They had both been withdrawn and were not traced.
On the morning of October 2nd Buller's army reached Lydenburg without further opposition. Lieutenant Cumin was buried in the evening in Lydenburg cemetery.
On Saturday, October 6th, Sir Redvers Buller bade farewell to his army. The troops lined the streets and roads and gave him a hearty send-off. He was immensely popular with the men and they were sorry to see him go.
General W. Kitchener took over command of the Lydenburg district and its garrison, on Sir Redvers Buller's departure.
On the writer asking Sir Redvers on the eve of the day of his departure which was his best army—the one he commanded into Ladysmith or the one with which he trekked north —he replied, "The army I went north with was the best. I watched the Devons pass me at Burgher's Nek and it struck me how wonderfully well they looked. I considered they were ready for anything I asked them to do; but," he added, "they surprised me with the pace they went up the hill at Burgher's Nek."