On October 8th, 1900, the battalion moved out of Lydenburg to the Mission Station, three miles north of the town on the Kruger's Post road. The Mission Station was a collection of Kaffir houses, containing some 500 Christian men, women, and children. The mission-house was taken over as a post and fortified as soon as the German pastor, who was found to be communicating with the Boers, had been sent to Pretoria to be locked up.
The site of the camp having been chosen, it was immediately surrounded by company forts consisting of ditches four feet deep and two feet wide for protection against shell fire, which it was considered possible would be brought to bear on the camp. This entrenchment was finished in one afternoon.
Two guns of the 53rd Battery under Lieutenant Higgins, and one 5-inch gun under Second Lieutenant McLellan, were added to the garrison.
The battalion stood to arms daily just before dawn.
On the 9th two companies under Captain Bartlett were moved to Paardeplaats as a permanent garrison, whilst two companies under Captain Travers were sent to Ben Tor.
On the 10th two companies of the Regiment, two guns, and one company mounted infantry proceeded just before daylight to a farm some six miles away, and burnt it. They encountered no opposition. This company of mounted infantry was then added to the garrison for permanent duty.
The two following days were employed in collecting forage from different farm-houses. Very few Boers were seen, and there was little or no opposition.
On the 24th, it having been ordained that all the Boer women in the various towns were to be sent out to their husbands in the laagers, two companies and two guns under Captain Ravenshaw were ordered to escort the ladies of Lydenburg over the Spekboom Bridge on the Kruger's Post road, and there hand them over to their husbands and friends. Captain Ravenshaw went out with a flag of truce and met the Boers, amongst whom was Erasmus. They were most affable, and shook hands cordially. The women reached Kruger's Post that evening.
The next day General Walter Kitchener started out at 2 a.m. with a column of infantry (Devons), mounted infantry and guns towards Kruger's Post for the purpose of shelling the farm. At dawn the column crossed the Spekboom Bridge and mounted the hills in the face of slight opposition. A 5-inch gun was then brought to the front and shells dropped into Kruger's Post, after which the column returned to camp. A patrol of four Boers was captured, and there were no casualties on the British side.
Very shortly after this the order concerning the Boer women was cancelled and a fresh order was issued, which ordained that all Boer women who were captured or gave themselves up should be confined in large concentration camps on the railway line.
On the evening of the 24th one company was ordered down from Ben Tor to be posted on the hill overlooking the Spekboom Bridge. The company proceeded there on the 25th escorted by two companies, two guns, and some mounted infantry.
On the following day, as the Boers were threatening the Bridge Post before the works were complete, one company and two guns were sent out as a covering party.
The battalion was now split up; two companies under Lieutenant Tringham proceeded to Witklip, two companies under Captain Bartlett were at Paardeplaats, one company under Lieutenant Cowie was at Ben Tor, one company under Captain Travers was at Bridge Post. Of the three remaining companies one was holding the Mission House, and the two others with the 5-inch gun and the two field guns formed the garrison of the main camp.
On October 30th two companies from Mission Camp were ordered to march at sunset through Lydenburg to the bank of the river. Here they halted and had supper, being eventually joined by the Rifle Brigade. Starting again at 9 p.m. and marching all through the night, they attacked some Boer laagers at dawn. After some heavy firing the laagers, which had been completely surprised, were captured with all their tents, etc. The column returned at 5 p.m. the same day, when the companies redistributed themselves to their various posts, having marched from 4 a.m. till 10.30 p.m. a distance of thirty-five miles. There were four casualties, one of which was a Devon man slightly wounded.
November was spent rather quietly by the battalion, the men being employed in strengthening the various posts and making them comfortable.
On November 7th one company was sent off to garrison Strathcona Hill on the southern side of the town.
On the 8th General Walter Kitchener again attacked the Boers, this time employing entirely mounted troops, He brought back with him 1000 sheep, 50 ponies, and 20 wagons. Five Boers were killed, and the mounted troops had two casualties.
Colonel Park returned from sick leave on the 9th, when Major Davies resumed his position as second in command. Lieutenants Hext and Kane left shortly afterwards to join the mounted infantry at Pretoria, and at the end of November Lieutenant Woollcombe rejoined the Regiment from Maritzburg, Lieutenant Harris returned from Pretoria with a draft of thirty-eight men, and Lieutenant Twiss rejoined from hospital at Newcastle.
At the beginning of December the following was the distribution of the companies of the Regiment:—
Two companies at Paardeplaats under Captain Bartlett.
One company at Ben Tor under Lieutenant Cowie.
One company at Bridge Post under Captain Travers.
One company at Strathcona Hill under Lieutenant Willis; and
Four companies at Mission Camp.
On December 9th and 10th a foraging expedition with three guns and four companies of the Rifle Brigade went out towards Van Der Merves' Farm under Colonel Park. These brought back twenty-eight wagon loads of forage without experiencing any opposition.
It was reported on the 12th that Nelspruit had been cut off by the Boers and required assistance. A column was immediately formed, composed of one squadron 19th Hussars, four companies Devons under Major Davies, and four companies Rifle Brigade with some guns; the whole proceeding under General Kitchener en route to the Mauchberg and Devil's Knuckles. Three companies of the Regiment had been taken from Mission Camp and one from Paardeplaats.
A blizzard blowing all night and the following morning, accompanied with thunder and heavy rain, delayed the advance of the troops till noon, when a start was effected, and the Mauchberg was occupied by the Devons without opposition.
Further advance down Hell's Gate to the Devil's Knuckles was found impracticable owing to the state of the road. Troops from Machadodorp had been sent to Lydenburg to act as a garrison whilst the column was out; but instructions were received from head-quarters on the 15th ordering the immediate return of the column to Lydenburg, as well as of the reinforcements back to Machadodorp. The Devons had been, however, sent out from the Mauchberg previous to the receipt of the order to retire. They skirmished down the road towards Devil's Knuckles, and in a very thick fog Boers and British nearly walked into each other's arms. There was a good deal of musketry fire, with the result to the British side of one Devon wounded. As was usually said on such occasions, "Boers' loss was probably very great." The three companies returned to Mission Camp late on the evening of the 16th.
On the 18th Major Davies was ordered to Witklip to take command of the forts; he took with him one company as a reinforcement to the garrison.
On Christmas Day the Regiment received a number of telegrams from friends in England wishing them good luck. A race meeting was held in the afternoon on the Lydenburg race-course. The public went armed, and two field guns were brought into action on the course. These precautions were necessary, for the Boers at this time were very busy, and on the night of December 28th-29th attacked the post at Helvetia, near Machadodorp, and captured it.
The post contained a 4.7 naval gun called "Lady Roberts," and this, with the garrison of three companies of the Liverpool Regiment, was taken, only one small fort manned by a small contingent of about fifteen men holding out. General Walter Kitchener left at once with four companies of the Rifle Brigade, two companies of the Regiment (from Witklip), two guns, and the mounted troops, in the hope of intercepting the Boers and recovering the gun. The Boers, however, had made good their retirement to the hills, and General Kitchener returned to Lydenburg with the column on the 31st.
The Liverpool Regiment lost at Helvetia 4 killed, 27 wounded, and 200 prisoners.
The Boers about this time attacked all along the line from Lydenburg to Pretoria. The defences, except at Lydenburg, were of the most meagre description. In fact, the works constructed by the Rifle Brigade and the Devons at Lydenburg were the only works of any strength, and these were as complete as possible. Witklip was being placed in a fortified condition, but up to the time of the taking of Helvetia Post little had been done anywhere, except at Lydenburg.
For the next few nights all posts round Lydenburg stood to arms at 1.30 a.m. owing to the activity of the Boers, but it was not till January 4th that they attacked the Bridge Hill Post. They attempted to capture the picquet on the bridge over the Spekboom River, but were beaten off.
About this time one company was ordered down from Paardeplaats to Mission Camp, the garrison at Paardeplaats being thus reduced to one company; and Witklip garrison was reinforced by the addition of one company, which was sent there from Mission Camp.
On the early morning of January 8th the Boers made a simultaneous attack on almost all posts on the line between Belfast and Lydenburg. The following posts were attacked: Badfontein, Schwarzkop, Helvetia, Machadodorp, Belfast, Pan, and Noitgedacht. The Badfontein Post was shelled only, by a big gun mounted on the hills west of the fort, which failed, however, to reach the post. The result of the general attack was that two posts only, those at Belfast, were captured by the Boers. These were not held, and the Boers retired, leaving twenty-four dead upon the ground. The posts had been well prepared for defence after the disaster at Helvetia.
A wire bridge over the Lydenburg River, constructed by Lieutenant Green and the twelve men of the Maxim gun team, was completed about this time, and as it attracted a good deal of attention a description of it may be interesting.
The bridge had a span of sixty feet, and was constructed on the system of the "jhula," or rope bridge, of Cashmere, out of telegraph wire. The roadway, to admit of one person at a time, was made of two lengths of twisted wire, each ten strands thick. These being stretched tightly across the river, and the ends well worked into the ground and pegged down, were joined together by small laths of wood two inches apart. Two more lengths, each ten strands thick, were stretched from two uprights on each bank, at a convenient height above the roadway, to form a support for it. These were joined on to the roadway by stout sticks, about one to two feet apart, on either side to give stability. The bridge was then secured up and down stream by wires to keep it steady. The height of the bridge above the stream was about twenty feet.
The chief cause of attraction and interest in the bridge to outsiders was the fact that it had been constructed entirely by British infantry without the aid of the Royal Engineers, and that the plan had been thought out by them alone, and was not "in the book." The idea had been taken from some photographs of a Cashmere "jhula," and the work had been carried out from descriptions of the rope bridges furnished by an officer of the Regiment who had crossed them. All previous bridges had been washed away, but this bridge was still standing at the end of the war, and was being utilized then by the Kaffirs at Mission Camp as an easy access and short cut to their cultivated fields.
On January 12th, as a larger convoy than usual was coming through to Lydenburg, a small force under Captain Jacson, consisting of two companies Devons, one company mounted infantry and one gun went out from Mission Camp to demonstrate towards Schoeman's Laager on the west. No Boers, however, were seen, and the convoy came safely into Lydenburg without opposition.
Several changes occurred in the disposition of the companies of the Regiment during the latter half of January, 1901.
The head-quarters with three companies were stationed at Witklip under Colonel Park. Two companies proceeded to Badfontein as a garrison under Major Davies. One company held each of the posts at Bridge Hill and Paardeplaats respectively. One company was in charge of the Mission House, whilst one company was left at Mission Camp to commence the construction of a new work south of the old camp.T
hese changes were made on account of some large convoys going and coming to and from the railway line, larger escorts having to be provided owing to the proximity and increased activity of the Boers on the lines of communication. The convoys came through safely without any trouble, and on January 30th Major Davies with his two companies returned to Witklip. The head-quarters of the Regiment, with three companies, left Witklip the following day and proceeded to Mission Camp. Further changes were made during February, 1901, the post at Paardeplaats being given up and the company posted there returning to Mission Camp.
Towards the latter end of January a flying column was organized by General Walter Kitchener. The objective of this column was the high hills south of Lydenburg towards Witpoort and Belfast. It was under the personal command of the General, and was composed of the following troops:—
1 squadron 19th Hussars.
1 battery R.F.A.
1 naval 12-pounder.
1 company Manchester Mounted Infantry.
3 companies Devons under Captain Travers.
The column set out at 1 a.m. in the direction of Elandskloof. It was a bright night, although a thick white mist hung everywhere. The 19th Hussars, who knew the difficult country, conducted the advance. After marching for two hours the column found itself in the hills. A halt was made whilst the three companies of the Regiment extended and occupied the high ground which barred the advance, to drive off any Boers who might be in possession. This manoeuvre was executed without opposition. It was learnt, however, that a Boer picquet had been on the top, and had galloped off on the approach of the infantry. Daylight found the column in possession of Elandskloof, which was reached after a difficult climb by steep and circuitous paths. Shortly after daylight several Boers were observed to be driving their cattle into kloofs above the Badfontein valley for safety. An advance was made shortly afterwards towards Schwartz Kopjes, which place was reached without much opposition towards dark. At Schwartz Kopjes camp was formed for the night, the infantry entrenching themselves in the kopjes round the camp, with one company posted in a farmhouse about 400 yards west of the main camp.
On the following day General Kitchener ordered the mounted troops and guns to make a reconnaissance towards Dulstroom. Whilst the rest of the force remained in camp, the baggage under escort was sent towards Belfast. The reconnoitring force fared badly, for after advancing a few miles Boers in large numbers were seen collecting on the high hills due west, and approaching at a rapid pace. The reconnoitring force was shortly afterwards heavily engaged, and compelled to retire on to the camp.
The infantry were now ordered to retire as rapidly as possible to a ridge in rear, distant about 2000 to 2500 yards. The cavalry retired hard pressed on to Schwartz Kopjes, which they held until the infantry had completed their movement, when the cavalry again retired back to the neighbourhood of the infantry. Schwartz kopjes were immediately occupied by the Boers, who collected there in large numbers and endeavoured to get round the flanks of the column.
Followed hotly by the Boers, the column made a rapid retirement, units covering each other until camp was reached. It was only then that the Boers drew off. There was no further engagement that day or during the night, and the column completed its advance next day to Belfast, where it arrived about midday and camped to the south side of the railway.
The distribution of the garrison, carried out at the commencement of February, continued more or less the same till the time the Regiment left Lydenburg. Three companies were north of Lydenburg, and were stationed at the Mission House, Mission Camp Fort, and Bridge Hill. One company was at Strathcona Hill, south of the town, two companies under the command of Major Davies were at Witklip, whilst the three companies which had proceeded with General Kitchener to Belfast were quartered on their return in Lydenburg.
During this time Colonel Park was commanding the Lydenburg district with Captain Ravenshaw as Brigade Major.
On February 5th the Boers attacked all the Lydenburg posts. The attacks were not heavily pressed. There were no casualties on the side of the defenders, whilst the Boers lost, as far as could be ascertained, two killed and seven wounded.
On February 16th two Boers surrendered at Mission Camp. These stated that their friends in the laagers were badly off for meat and had hardly any horses left, most of them having died of horse-sickness.
Early in March, 1901, Colonel Park decided on raiding Piet Schwartz's laager, which was stationed on the ridge to the north of and overlooking Kruger's Post. His force consisted of three companies Devons under Captain Jacson, three companies Rifle Brigade, three companies Royal Irish, one squadron 19th Hussars, three companies mounted infantry, three guns 53rd Battery, one howitzer, and one pompom, and by the 12th his arrangements were complete. The infantry were to make a night march and to attack at dawn, whilst the mounted troops and guns were to be at Kruger's Post just after dawn to assist.
Under cover of darkness, the column rendezvoused at the Spekboom Bridge, one company having gone on ahead to seize any Boers who might be coming down at nightfall, as was their wont, to form a picquet there.
A start was made from the bridge at about 9 p.m. Leaving the main road on their left, the column proceeded in single file, Devons leading, along a footpath which led them over a Nek in the hills and thence down into a donga. An accident, which might have been attended with very unfortunate results, occurred at the very commencement. The Royal Irish, who were in the rear, instead of following and keeping in touch with the remainder of the column missed connection, and went up the main road, on which, about two miles ahead, was a Boer picquet. They were, however, stopped just in time and turned back. This delayed the advance for about an hour. Along the donga the march was continued for some six miles, when a cross donga was met with, the sides of which were steep and about fifteen feet high. The leading troops crossed and halted on the far side till the rear closed up. The Maxim gun mules with difficulty negotiated the obstacle, and the advance was, after one hour's halt, continued to Kruger's Post.
The force kept to the donga almost the whole march, scarcely for a moment leaving its shelter. Terribly rough going it was, with long high grass soaking wet, and the men tumbling about into ruts and over rocks. On they trudged, twisting and turning, up and down, falling about, with every now and then a suppressed exclamation and an imprecation on rocks and ruts in general and night marches in particular—no lights, no smoking. No one except he who has done it knows what a strain it is marching along through the dark night, without a word and without the company of a pipe.
On emerging from the donga at Kruger's Post on to the open veldt a further halt was made; the leading troops lay down in the soaking grass and were fast asleep in a moment.
It was found that the column had opened out considerably, and must have stretched for some four miles from lead to end. The rate of marching at the head of the column had been about two miles per hour. This was found, over the rough ground, to be too quick to allow of the rear keeping closed up—the pace should not have exceeded one mile an hour.
The column having closed up and the sleeping men having with difficulty been found and turned up out of the wet grass, a further advance was made. But now the direction was to the right in order to avoid Kruger's Post Farm, which was occupied by the Boers. This took the column over some millraces, a biggish jump for the men. The mules, having been relieved of their loads, were man-handled across. Once over these and then a wade through a stream knee deep, the ghostly column again halted. It was now 3.30 a.m. The foot of the low hills behind which was the laager, had been reached, and the officers were busy getting their men collected.
An intelligence officer reports that if there is the slightest delay dawn will break before the positions are reached. The first streak of dawn is 4.45 a.m.
"May we go off now on our own?" is the question asked.
"All right; off you go!" is the cheery answer from Colonel Park.
The Devons had the furthest to go, perhaps one and a half miles to reach the far side of the laager. The Royal Irish were already at the foot of the hill on the top of which was the position assigned to them.
Two of the Rifle Brigade companies had unfortunately missed connection and had gone off into the "Ewigkeit" in the dark, but one company was ready and handy to the Nek which they had to occupy, to fill up the gap between the Devons and the Royal Irish.
The Devons, who by this time were well together, started off, Captain Travers with a guide leading. He had orders to take on with him the two first companies, the guide showing him where to place his men. On they went, running and walking, walking and running, up the slippery road, across the Nek and then down into the valley below. Two small groups of men were posted in the ditch leading up to the Nek.
As the last man reached the knoll overlooking the Nek at the place where the main road crossed it, and which was the right of the Devons' allotment of position, the two leading companies could be heard down in the valley below stumbling amongst the stones, getting into a position that would entirely cut off the Boers' retreat down the main road leading north.
Suddenly all was still: everything was ready. It was exactly 4.45 a.m.
All lay down and waited in breathless silence for the coming dawn. The Devons had orders to withhold their fire as long as possible, to make sure of the other units being in their places. "That's the position of the laager, just behind that little knoll," whispered an intelligence scout; "but it seems as if the bird has flown."
For some ten minutes the silence continued, with not so much as the crack of a twig to interrupt it. What's that? It's a cock crowing! There it is again! There's another! The laager's there right enough, and we've got them!
In the far distance, Lydenburg way, the faint noise of musketry fire could be heard; it was the mounted troops advancing and driving in the Boer picquets on the road above the Spekboom Bridge, eight miles back.
In about five minutes' time the laager was roused by a Boer, who commenced swearing roundly at some one in a very loud voice. One man came out and posted himself on a little rise of ground, and gazed, listening, Kruger's Post way. He was joined by another, then another, until there was a group of nine of them, two dressed in long white robes. It was thought that these were women. Suddenly they all returned into the laager out of sight, only to appear again in a few minutes on horseback. Three of them came straight up to the high road just under the knoll where the Devons were in readiness. They were allowed to go on, and they continued their career down the road towards Kruger's Post.
Now the utility of posting the groups in the ditch by the side of the road became manifest. Suddenly from their direction crack! went a single rifle, then a burst of rifle fire, which was immediately taken up all round the circle.
No, not quite round; there was silence from the hill which should have been occupied by the Royal Irish. A party of some twenty Boers were seen ascending this hill, the top of which was covered with big rocks. The Devons' rifles as well as their Maxim gun were turned on to them. The Boers, however, succeeded in reaching the safety of the rocks a few moments before the ascending Irish.
Meanwhile the firing had become general, and in the dim light also a trifle mixed. The Rifle Brigade fired into the two Devon companies down in the valley and across the laager. The latter in their turn fired at some Boers trying to escape through the gap left open by the Royal Irish. These were striving with the Boers for the possession of the rock-capped hill, and both were being fired into by the Devons across the valley.
After some twenty minutes of sharp musketry fire the "cease fire" sounded, and everything was again quiet; it was then found that the whole laager had fallen into British hands. Two Boers were killed, three wounded, and thirty-six captured, whilst the British casualties were two killed and four wounded, all of them Royal Irish.
The distance from Lydenburg to Piet Schwartz's laager by road is about eighteen miles; the distance marched by the column could not have been under twenty miles, and this over very difficult ground. The column had left Lydenburg at 7 p.m., and reached its destination at 4.45 a.m.
Unfortunately, Piet Schwartz himself escaped capture, as he was not in the laager; he had left it the previous day.
The mounted troops and guns were very slow in coming out, with the result that a large quantity of cattle located in the various kloofs which should have been captured, escaped.
Abel Erasmus was taken the following day.
The force bivouacked at Kruger's Post for the night, and returned to Lydenburg next day, bringing with it fifteen Boer families in addition to the prisoners. On their return a wire was received by Colonel Park from Lord Kitchener: "Highly appreciate successful operation of Colonel Park and troops engaged."
The remainder of the month was spent mostly in convoy work between Witklip and Lydenburg. Whilst returning to Lydenburg with one of these convoys, General Walter Kitchener, who was riding ahead with a small escort, suddenly came across some Boers lying concealed in the grass. He lost two of his own personal escort killed, his own horse also being shot. He himself narrowly escaped capture.
On April 10th an order was issued for the battalion to concentrate in Lydenburg, preparatory to a general advance of three columns. The posts at Bridge Hill, Mission Village, Strathcona, and Paardeplaats were evacuated, and the company at Witklip withdrawn.
The destinations of the columns were as follows:—
One column under Colonel Park was to proceed in the Kruger's Post direction and to scour the country towards the north, and later to join hands with General Kitchener's column, which was to proceed in a north-westerly direction, and the third column under Colonel Douglas was to proceed from Witklip in a westerly direction.
On the 12th, Lieutenant-Colonel Park handed over the command of the battalion to Major Davies, who had arrived from Witklip, and Captain Jacson took over the duties of second in command.