THE Natal Police took a very active part in the Boer War of 1899-1902, but they won little distinction as a body, for, from the very beginning, they were split up into small detachments, although it was hoped when hostilities began that they would be formed into a field force about 400 strong.
The order to prepare for service was given at headquarters in August 1899, and it was decided to use pack-horses as a first line of transport. Packponies were properly fitted with saddles which bore numbers corresponding with the animals. All loads were weighed and balanced, and every man knew exactly what his pack would contain, and where it was to be carried. Mounted natives were to lead the pack animals, thus relieving the Europeans for fighting purposes.
Colonel Dartnell was invited to join the Staff of the General Officer Commanding, and the first body of men called out for service in Natal consisted of 25 police, under Sergeant Woon. They were dispatched to the Upper Tugela magistracy on the 1st September to patrol the passes on the berg, and watch any movement of Boers in the direction of the Orange Free State ,
A curious point arose when the resident magistrate desired to take command of the police in the field, Sergeant Woon having been ordered to take his instructions from the magistrate as to the direction of patrols.
The enemy moved into Natal, and the question of the command of the police was referred to the General Officer Commanding. It was ruled that in all military operations the non-commissioned officer or even the senior trooper of a party would take charge of his men, because a magistrate might lead them into a tight corner, and not know how to get them out of it. This detachment was subsequently joined by the Natal Volunteers, and retired with them to Ladysmith, taking part in the defence of the town.
A hundred men remained at headquarters, and there were constant drill and target practice. They were inspected by many distinguished officers, including Generals Sir George White, Sir Archibald Hunter, Penn-Symons, and Yule, every one speaking highly of the first line transport and the celerity with which the men were able to turn out in marching order.
Orders were received by the men at headquarters, on the 29th September, to go to Dundee and await General Penn-Symons, and just as they were ready to march out, the Prime Minister telephoned to say that there was considerable trouble with the natives in Alfred County. When the men heard of this they were, naturally, keenly disappointed, for they had had quite sufficient of scares on the southern border, and General Penn-Symons gave the order that some of the recently raised irregular forces could be sent down to the troubled area if necessary. Even then, however, the detachment was prevented from joining the General.
On the 17th October a party of Boers were making their way through Umvoti County to destroy the Inchanga Tunnel on the railway, and thus prevent the passage of troops from Durban to Ladysmith. A special train left Pietermaritzburg at once with every available member of the Natal Police. They encamped at Botha's Hill, sentries being placed at the entrance to the tunnel, and a special engine being kept in readiness to move the men rapidly if necessary.
Just before midnight furious firing was heard, and supports rushed down to the engine. It was found that the sentries had shot at some figures near the line who failed to respond to a challenge. Later it was discovered that a European platelayer had had his hat shot through, and he also demanded a new pair of trousers ; and a coolie had been shot in the leg. The platelayer had been told to patrol the line, and as he had not been told of the arrival of the police, he thought, when challenged, that the Boers were in possession of the place, so he threw away his lantern and bolted.
This detachment, which was recalled to Pietermaritzburg late in October, was subsequently broken up, some of the men joining Colonel Leuchars' column on the Greytown-Helpmakaar road, and others forming General Duller 's bodyguard.
Orders were issued to all police in the Newcastle and Dundee districts to hold themselves in readiness to retire on Dundee, and this mobilization took place on the I4th October, although the detachment at De Jager's Drift was left to watch the movements of the enemy on the opposite side of the Buffalo.
At this station there were Sergeant Mann and Troopers Askland and Alexander, who were kept busy patrolling the Transvaal border. When the situation became more strained they were strengthened by the addition of Troopers Ferguson, Kenny, Harris, and Atwood. They had instructions to retire towards Botha's Nek if their position became untenable, and they were ordered to ring up Dundee on the telephone every two hours, day and night. Small parties of the Boers were constantly seen on the other side of the drift. On the I4th October Trooper Harris was captured while patrolling at the Emjanyadu Hill, and a couple of hours later eighteen Boers crossed the river and captured the police horses, which were out grazing. Not a shot was fired, and the animals were driven straight across into the Transvaal. From their position the Boers could see a party of mounted troops some distance away on the main road, and, having observed these, evidently thought they would secure the horses while there was an opportunity.
Sergeant Mann received instructions to remain at his post, and to secrete all arms and ammunition. He was told that a party would be sent to their relief, and while these orders were being sent the wire was cut. Not long afterwards a score of Boers crossed the river at the drift, and, galloping up to the camp, surrounded it and made its occupants prisoners.
Trooper Ferguson managed to hide himself away and escaped capture, subsequently walking off wearing a kafir blanket. The prisoners were sent to Vryheid by mule wagon.
When the battle of Talana was fought, the police joined the 6/th Battery and the Leicestershire Regiment. Colonel Dartnell, with Sergeant Good and Trooper Wright, of the police, accompanied General Penn-Symons in the fight. Sergeant Good's horse was shot, and Trooper Wright was wounded, being shot through the head. He died nearly twelve years afterwards from the effects of the wound. General Yule, who had succeeded to the command when General Penn-Symons was wounded, feared that an attack would be made by the Boer commando at the Impati Mountain. The mounted men reconnoitred, and reported that the enemy were there in strong force. Tents were struck, it being decided to form another camp and make a stand on one of the spurs of the Indumeni, where trenches were dug, only to be filled by rain-water.
Shells from the Boer commando fell unpleasantly near. The British batteries attempted to reply, but were out of range, and General Yule received the disconcerting news that reinforcements could not be sent to him because the troops at Ladysmith were engaged. The rain continued to fall, causing the greatest discomfort to the men, who had no tents or blankets, and were short of food.
When the news of the Boer defeat at Eland's Laagte reached General Yule on the 22nd he made a move in the direction of Glencoe to intercept the retreat of the enemy, but the Boers were too strong, and the General had to retire. That night, upon Colonel DartnelFs suggestion, concurred in by the Officers Commanding Regiments, he decided to make for Ladysmith, travelling via the Helpmakaar road, and the march began at 9 p.m. It was pitch dark, and Mr. C. F. Dodd, an ex-trooper of the Natal Police, guided the column out of Dundee. Orders were given for strict silence, but the guns and transport wagons made quite enough noise to let any Boers who might have been in the vicinity know what was happening. Without a break, the troops marched all night, and at dawn had five hours' much-needed rest and a good meal. At midday the General decided to wait at the head of Van Tender's Pass for darkness, before making a further move, and that night the column was guided down the path to the Waschbank River by Trooper Jock Grey of the police. Again the column marched all night, and when the Waschbank was reached, soon after daylight, many of the troops were thoroughly worn out. They slept there for some hours, but a heavy thunderstorm caused much misery in the afternoon, the river rising twelve feet and turning the country into an ocean of mud.
The retirement was continued at 4 a.m. the following day, and as there was no sign of pursuit the march was conducted in a more leisurely fashion. At Sunday's River another halt was made, and the horses were given an opportunity of grazing. Some of the men on this occasion were able to strip for the first time for five days. That evening troops arrived from Lady smith to assist the column over the last stage of the journey, and as Boers were reported to be in the vicinity, General Yule decided to undertake another night march, again in pouring rain. It was a long and painful night for all concerned. Mules, horses, and men were knocked up, and the column was broken every few minutes. Once the wagons stuck fast for two hours, and the advanceguard, knowing nothing of this, went right away and left them. Nobody was sorry when Ladysmith was reached at breakfast-time.
While this retirement from Dundee was in progress, General Sir George White feared that the Free State commando, which was said to have reached Bester's Station, would intercept the column, so, with the object of engaging the attention of the enemy, he moved out of Ladysmith in the direction of Eland's Laagte.
He had with him a troop of police, who paraded with the other troops at 3 a.m. on the 24th October, and, with the volunteers, formed the rear-guard until, about six miles out of the town, the 5th Lancers, at the head of the column, came under fire. The police and other mounted men were then sent to form the advance-guard.
As soon as the infantry were in position facing the Intintanyoni Mountain, the police and volunteers were moved to a ridge on the right flank of the enemy, who held a very strong position overlooking a valley, and were about six thousand strong. From where the Boers were they could watch every movement of the British troops, who, on the other hand, found it most difficult to pick out a target, the enemy having excellent cover.
There was a kopje in the valley which dominated the whole position. It was seen that a number of Boers were making for it, and had they reached the place they could have enfiladed the troops. Major Bru de Wold, Chief Staff Officer of the Volunteer Brigade, pointed out to the police (who numbered about thirty) what was happening, and ordered them to take the kopje. Hastily dismounting, they ran down the slope and started to cover the clear space, about two hundred yards in width, to the kopje.
The moment they left the ridge the police were fully exposed to the raking fire of the enemy, who had got the range nicely and were taking careful aim from a distance of some six hundred yards. Half-way across this space there was a farmer's barbed-wire fence, about five feet high, and constructed of eight tight strands. The troopers scrambled through this formidable obstacle, not without receiving many a nasty scratch, and in scattered order straggled to the coveted kopje.
When they had taken possession of it the rest of the brigade began to follow. Foreseeing disaster as the men got to the fence, where they would have been ploughed down while clustered there, Trooper Dick Seed, of the Natal Police, raced back from the kopje across the open space, where bullets were flying thick and fast. With a pair of wire cutters he made an opening in the fence so that the brigade, which consisted of about four hundred men, could get through quickly. He did this at the risk of his life, for while cutting the fence he made an excellent target for the Boers, who were uncomfortably close.
When the General considered that his object in saving the Dundee column from attack had been achieved, he moved off with the main body, and the brigade on the isolated kopje was left, the whole of the enemy's fire now being concentrated on it. It was obvious that they were going to have a hot time as soon as they left shelter and started to cross the open space again, so Seed gallantly hurried to the fence and hacked a larger opening in it ; and the brigade was able to retire at the double.
For his bravery Trooper Seed was specially mentioned in dispatches, and as a reward was promoted to be sergeant.
The fight at Eland's Laagte had taken place before this. Although the police took no part in the action, several men were sent out at night to assist the wounded, but this did not entitle them to the Eland's Laagte clasp.
An escort of police under Sub-Inspector Petley took a party of 188 Boer prisoners down to Pietermaritzburg from Eland's Laagte.
The members of the Natal Police in Ladysmith, who numbered at this time about seventy, consisted of the detachment from Newcastle (excepting Sub Inspector Petley and the escort for the prisoners), and the men from the Dundee and Ladysmith districts. Colonel Dartnell was transferred to the Staff of General White, and Sub-Inspector W. J. Clarke was sent from Pietermaritzburg to take charge of the men, who were attached to the Volunteer Brigade under Colonel Royston.
Most of the Natal Police had their first experience of being under fire on the morning of the 3oth October " Mournful Monday." They paraded at two o'clock, and were ordered to join the volunteers near Lombard's Kop. They moved on to the ridges running north-east from Gun Hill, and had no sooner linked their horses under cover and reached the top of the ridge than they found themselves under a heavy fire. Three cavalry regiments under General French halted near the place where the Natal Police were, and as they offered a good target for the " Long Tom " on Pep worth Hill, the troopers had a good deal of the shell-fire drawn in their direction. There were plenty of stones along the ridge behind which they could 'obtain cover from the enemy's rifle fire. They were armed with carbines, which, being nearly worn out, were practically useless, and were exchanged in the evening on the return to camp for long rifles.
The firing slackened somewhat near midday, and a Staff officer who was passing gave the police and volunteers the order to retire. They returned to their horses, and were just in the act of mounting, when another Staff officer galloped up.
" What the deuce are you doing ? " he asked.
They explained what had happened, so he said abruptly :
" Oh, that was a mistake ! You must hold the ridge until the infantry have retired."
And so the mounted men returned to their position. There was a great deal of confusion in other parts of the field. Horses without riders were straggling about in every direction. In one instance a horse, with a dead man hanging by the foot in the stirrup, galloped across the rear of the police, and mules drawing ammunition carts, without drivers, were stampeding across the veldt. One of the police, at the risk of being court-martialled, went down the hill towards several cavalry horses that had been terribly cut up by shell-fire, and put them out of their misery.
When the retirement began, the regiments became badly mixed up, and in some instances there was no attempt at formation. Soldiers left their rifles and ammunition on the hills, and Maxim guns were abandoned. The men, after marching all night, had been fighting all day, and suffered badly for want of water. The mounted troopers, whose experiences had not been so trying, retired in good order, being detained for a little while to act as escort to the 53rd Battery. This time the police were subjected to a heavy shell-fire, and one shot cut a trooper's horse in half without injuring its rider. Thinking, even at such a moment, of his clothing and equipment account, the policeman slipped the saddle and bridle off the carcase, and placed it on the limbers of one of the guns.
While this column was engaged outside the town, news was received that the enemy were advancing from the west, and that Ladysmith was being bombarded. The men who were retiring realized that the town was about to be besieged. The Naval Brigade had arrived with their 4*7 guns, and it was stated optimistically that before twenty-four hours had elapsed not one of the Boer guns would be within range of Ladysmith.
It was felt certain that reinforcements would come to the relief of the town, and both Colonel Dartnell and Colonel Royston urged tliat the colonial cavalry, consisting of the Volunteer Brigade and the Imperial Light Horse, should be sent out to meet them. This was discussed with the General Officer Commanding, but it was not until the 2nd November, the day on which the last train left Ladysmith with General French, that Colonel Dartnell was asked if he could get away, as had been suggested, with the colonial cavalry. The Boers were then all around Ladysmith, and Colonel Dartnell replied that he thought it could be done, but only with heavy loss, so the attempt was not made.
When the siege of Ladysmith began there were 60 members of the Natal Police at Nongoma, 10 at Nqutu, 84 at Ladysmith, 40 at Tugela Ferry, 40 at Estcourt, and 120 at Pietermaritzburg.
The work of the force was being carried on as usual at nearly all the small out-stations south of the Tugela. A number of men had been specially enlisted for six months' service, many being ex-members of the force.
As fast as reinforcements arrived on the coast, they were hurried on from Durban to Estcourt, where General Hildyard soon had a strong force under his command. Before this the lower part of Natal was practically defenceless, and anxiety was felt for the security of Pietermaritzburg. If the enemy had descended on that town, there would have been only some Town's Guardsmen and some recruits of an irregular force, besides the Natal Police, to defend the place.
In the middle of November 4000 Boers under Commandant General Joubert started south from Colenso. The detachment of police at Estcourt had been augmented by men from headquarters, and these were ordered with other mounted men to patrol the country and watch this raiding party. Eight of the police reported on the i4th November that the enemy were in large numbers to the south of the Tugela, and again on the following day made a similar report to the officer commanding the armoured train. This officer, being sceptical, decided to go and see for himself. The train on which he went ran into an obstruction put there by Boers, and for some time two field-guns, a pom-pom, and about three hundred Mausers were blazing away at it . Part of the armoured train, with about one-third of the men, got back to Estcourt, and the police retired along the road.
General Joubert began to retrace his steps to the north of the Tugela on the 25th November, taking with him a large herd of captive cattle and horses. No serious attempt was made to attack him on this march, but the police and mounted men were directed to keep in touch with the enemy.
For some time prior to this, Sub-Inspector Maxwell, with 40 non-commissioned officers and men of the Natal Police, had been constantly patrolling to the north of Grey town, and for the valuable information which they sent in, they were thanked in a special order by the military authorities. This detachment was ordered on the 22nd October to join Major Leuchars, of the Umvoti Mounted Rifles, and was moved to Tugela Ferry, being joined a few days later by 60 of the Natal Police under Sub-Inspector Abraham.
This force fell back to the Manuceni, about five miles from the Tugela, when a large body of the enemy were reported at the Mooi River. The Boers set fire to the police camp and to a store, whereupon the police and mounted rifles promptly moved ^out and opened fire on the enemy with a Maxim. The Boers kept up a hot fire for a while and then retired. A few days later another skirmish took place, but no damage was done, apparently, on either side. This detachment of police was reinforced from time to time until it rose to 180 men.
General Buller announced his intention early in November of supervising in person the advance of the troops to relieve the besieged garrison of Ladysmith. He arrived in Natal on the 25th November, and joined a strong force of British troops at Frere, his bodyguard consisting of 40 men of the Natal Police, under Inspector Fairlie. The remainder of the police there were attached to a composite regiment under Major Gough, of the 16th Lancers.
This formed a portion of the mounted brigade under the command of Colonel the Earl of Dundonald. The troops moved forward to Chieveley on the 12th December, the mounted men being sent scouting in front.
Two days later the plan was announced for the attack on Hlangwane Hill, and while it was still dark on the following morning the police moved out as part of the advance-guard. The mountain was occupied by the enemy, who were shelled by the 7th Battery Field Artillery, the composite regiment accompanying them. The Irish Brigade and Colonel Long's guns met with disaster, and the mounted men, who were under a very heavy fire, were ordered to stand fast. It was an hour after the troops were ordered to retire that the mounted men received similar instructions, and though they were being heavily attacked the movement was well executed. The police had considerable difficulty in bringing away the Maxim gun, which had been hotly engaged.
Several of the police had narrow escapes during the day. A shell went between the legs of one of General Buller's escort while he was resting on an ant-hill.
A section of General Buller's force was withdrawn to Frere, owing to scarcity of water, but the composite regiment stayed at Chieveley, and reconnoitred in the direction of the Tugela.
General Buller started in a westerly direction on the loth January, and as it had been raining heavily for three days, this was a very arduous undertaking. The infantry, following the transport, had to flounder through a sea of mud, but the mounted men, being in the advance-guard, were better off. The composite regiment had left to hold Springfield, and next day moved on to Potgieter's Drift, where a punt was seized and brought to the south side of the river, under a heavy fire from the Boers.
When darkness had fallen on the 16th January, General Warren's column, to which was attached the composite regiment, marched to Trichard's Drift, where the Royal Engineers made a pontoon bridge. The mounted men, however, were ordered to get across the drift, and many of them had narrow escapes from drowning.
A private of the 14th Hussars was swept down the flooded stream. Trooper Roddy, of the Natal Police, while standing on the bank some distance away, saw what had happened. Without a moment's pause he plunged into the river fully equipped, bearing the weight of his revolver, bandoliers, and ammunition. He got to the drowning man and brought him back to shore, but all efforts to resuscitate the Hussar failed.
For this act of bravery, which was witnessed by the whole brigade, Roddy was rewarded with the Royal Humane Society medal.
The difficulties encountered in crossing the flooded river may be judged by the fact that without any rest being taken it took twenty-six hours to get the transport over the pontoon bridge.
While this operation was being carried on, patrols of the police were sent out, and in the afternoon a party of about three hundred Boers were seen riding down from Tabanyama towards the store at Venter's Drift. An attempt was made to ambuscade them, and the mounted men, by galloping at full speed, seized two kopjes to the west of the store. The Boers had no suspicion of the presence of the enemy, until some one carelessly fired a rifle, and then there was a general fusillade. The majority of the Boers turned and escaped, but some of them sheltered behind neighbouring boulders, and spiritedly replied to the fire. Supports were brought up, and the Boers surrendered, their total of killed, wounded, and captured being about fifty.
The police continued to guard the left flank of the troops until the 20th January, when the force was split up.
On the 12th January a further movement for the relief of Lady smith was announced, and the column started from Chieveley, the mounted brigade covering its flanks. The police took part in the capture of the Cingolo Hill. Lord Dundonald decided to attack it from the rear, and then forced his way up a steep hill covered with boulders, where he surprised a commando of 300 Boers, who were so intent on watching the infantry that they neglected the rear. The police reached the summit first, and after a slight skirmish the whole mountain was in the hands of the British force, the mounted men spending the night on the position they had won.
Early on the 2oth February it was discovered that the Boers had abandoned Colenso, and all their positions to the south of the Tugela ; and a week later the final operations were started. The Boers retired from a strong position on the north of the Tugela, and General Buller advanced towards Ladysmith.