Outbreak of Rinderpest in Griqualand West and Bechuanaland in 1896 Tends to Conflict with the Natives. The Capture of Phokwani—Major Plumer Raises a Regiment for Service in Matabeleland—My Second Meeting with Major, then General Plumer in 1908—Kimberley's Gratitude to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment for its Services During the Siege—My Speech on Making the Presentation.
In 1896 rinderpest attacked the cattle in Griqualand West and Bechuanaland, and threatened to spread to the old Cape Colony. To prevent such a catastrophe the Government decided to destroy all cattle on farms on which this pest existed, and to compensate the farmers by giving them £4 per head for every animal put out of its misery. This was only half the value, but it was not an illiberal amount in view of the dread nature of the disease. Once it made its appearance on the farm, it was almost certain that, unless a miracle happened, the whole herd would be wiped out.
As a precautionary measure, the Government stationed guards on the north bank of the Orange River to prohibit the movement of cattle across this particular piece of territory. This action fortunately prevented the spread of the rinderpest to the old Colony, and the white farmers were completely satisfied with the trend of events. Unfortunately, many natives in the Bechuanaland area—the proud possessors of their own stock— resented and resisted the move, not realising that it was to their own benefit to accept the proffered terms.
To settle the argument a force of twenty-five mounted police were sent to Phokwani, a reserve of which Galishwe was Chief. The natives remained obdurate. They would not listen to reason, and refused to allow the police to destroy their cattle, despite the fact that the disease had already decimated a portion of their herds.
Resenting the presence of this small force, the natives attacked the police in overwhelming numbers, and in their wild dash a varied assortment of weapons were used, including firearms and assegais. So serious was the position that the police were forced to make an orderly retirement to Schaapfontein, a small outpost some three miles distant, which they fortified as best they could. Here they were besieged for several days until the Government was compelled to send another force of mounted men to relieve the small beleagured garrison. But, despite all efforts to calm the hostile natives, they still showed fight, and the relieving force proved much too weak to rescue their comrades in distress. I was at this time in command of the Griqualand West Brigade, and before long I received orders to send 100 infantry and two guns to reinforce the police already on the scene. It later transpired that my men, under the command of Major Peakman, together with the Cape Mounted Police, managed to relieve the police shut up in Schaapfontein, but they did not prove strong enough to advance and capture Galishwe's kraal.
While I was watching the entraining of my small force at the Kimberley railway station, I received an urgent telegram from " Defence," Cape Town, which I read, countermanding the order for the despatch of the two guns, which were by now on the point of being trucked. I hastily transferred the telegram into my trousers pocket, and after witnessing the guns and the small contingent steam out of the station, I returned to the Drill Hall. Here I sat down and hurriedly drafted a telegram to "Defence," pointing out that I regretted that the instruction not to send the guns had arrived too late.
It was early on the morning of December 26, 1896, that I received an order to proceed to Phokwani with the Griqualand West Brigade so as to advance and capture the Chief's stad, in conjunction with the force already in the vicinity. I was also told that ammunition, tents, waterproof sheets and all the necessary military equipment had left King Williams Town the previous day in a truck attached to a passenger train due to reach Kimberley at noon the following day.
Everything was in readiness to move off at 2 p.m. The railway authorities had provided accommodation for all the men, and it was arranged that the truck containing supplies should be hooked on to the troop train proceeding to Phokwani siding. The passenger train arrived in Kimberley to time, but, alas, the commissariat truck failed to put in an appearance. I telegraphed to every station master along the route, but received the same reply in every case—it was not to be found.
After a delay of precious hours, I wired to the Senior Officer of Supplies, who now informed me with great regret that through some misunderstanding the truck had not left. To have adequately expressed my feelings at that particular moment would have made me liable to a trial by court martial. It was not advisable to keep the men hanging about the station for thirty-six hours, and a still more awkward part of the business was a shortage of ammunition. Could I take men on active service with only a few rounds each?
Anxious inquiries elicited the information that a local gunsmith and a big storekeeper held stocks of .303 ammunition, so, without authority, I at once bought the lot. The risk of being personally surcharged was nothing to me as compared with the urgency of the situation.
All ranks were by now becoming impatient. They were anxious to leave for their battleground in view of the knowledge that a Mr. Blum, a storekeeper of Phokwani, and his two white assistants and servants were in danger of being murdered. Consequently, there was a shout of general satisfaction when the train steamed out of Kimberley on its sixty-nine mile journey at 10 p.m.
I must not forget to mention, however, that an hour before we moved off I received a telegram from "Defence," Cape Town, couched in the following terms:
"As the operations in Bechuanaland appear to be assuming serious proportions, Lieutenant-Colonel Sprenger of the Permanent Force has been appointed to take command."
At the time this officer was in Queenstown, and could not have arrived in Kimberley in less than forty-eight hours. He was actually a major in the Cape Mounted Rifles, but had been appointed temporary lieutenant-colonel. The idea apparently was that he should be my senior in relative rank, as I held the same rank in the Volunteer Force.
I lost no time in showing this message to my second-in-command, Major Finlayson, who expressed his disgust at its tone, his bilingual outburst being in both English and Scotch. " What is the meaning of this despicable message, Colonel ?" he said heatedly. "What do you intend doing in the matter?" "Major," I replied, "here, surely, politics are meddling in military matters. The Government knows that I must go to the seat of the disturbance at once. In the event of my engaging the enemy and meeting with a reverse they will sacrifice me by saying I should have remained inactive by waiting till Lieutenant-Colonel Sprenger had reached the scene of operations. They want to be in a position to save their own skins, no matter what happens. I am determined to give Galishwe a 'licking' before Sprenger can possibly arrive."
The next day Phokwani was captured, and the same night Galishwe's main kraal, with its many huts, was burnt. But, sad to relate, Mr. Blum and his white assistants had been cruelly and cowardly murdered a few days before the Griqualand West Brigade had moved off from Kimberley.
Colonel Sprenger never reached the scene of fighting, as the order was subsequently countermanded. After the capture of Phokwani I received reliable information that Galishwe was in hiding at Taungs, a large native village dominated by Chief Molala. I telegraphed the news to the Government, and urged that the force under my command should march the sixteen miles through the night, surround Taungs, and demand the surrender of the fugitive. I also proposed that warning should be issued to Molala that if he refused to surrender Galishwe, his village would be destroyed.
But, rather unwisely, the Government did not approve of my suggestion, as there was no desire, they stated, to alarm loyal natives. Galishwe subsequently made good his escape to the Lange-berg mountains, where he was harboured by another native chief. It afterwards cost the country £400,000, and the loss of many valuable lives, before the notorious native leader was run to earth. He was tried at the criminal sessions at Kimberley, and was, I think, sentenced to five years' imprisonment with hard labour. He was lucky to escape with such a light punishment. He was undoubtedly deserving of the death sentence, as it was through his instrumentality that Mr. Blum and his assistants were done to death.
After an absence of three weeks the brigade returned to Kimberley, where they were accorded an enthusiastic reception by the residents of the town. The Mayor addressed the troops, and in an eloquent and flattering speech thanked them for the services they had rendered.
Shortly after the cessation of hostilities in Bechuanaland, I had occasion to visit Cape Town. While there I called on the Secretary for Defence, Colonel Homan Folliott, to draw his attention to the serious negligence of the Commissariat and Ordnance Departments in not doing their duty at a most critical time. I was also anxious to hear some explanation of the message I had received when on the point of going to the front.
The colonel, alarmed at my representations, requested me not to officially report the delay in forwarding ammunition and equipment, because, he said, the officer in charge of these departments was shortly to be pensioned, and any such complaint might possibly decrease the emolument he would receive. So I allowed the matter to drop.
The question, however, of being superseded at a critical moment still rankled in my mind, and I was determined to get some explanation of what I felt to be an indignity and a want of confidence. I thereupon handed the colonel the offending telegram, and said sharply " This is a nice encouraging message to send to an officer on the eve of going on active service. I could easily have read it to mean that I had to remain in Kimberley with my contingent until the arrival of Sprenger. Had I done that, and the small force at Phokwani had met with a reverse, I would have been blamed by the Government, the military authorities and the public. I am surprised, sir, that a soldier should have sent such a discouraging message at such a critical time." The Colonel's eyes lit up. "My dear Harris," he said, "the Prime Minister insisted on my sending you the telegram after I had strongly urged him not to do so. I even remarked at the time to Sir Gordon Sprigg, 'if Harris is the man I take him to be he will finish the job before Sprenger can get there'."
Knowing Sir Gordon as I did, I feel sure that the message must have been sent after consultation with the Military Secretary. Colonel Folliott was a diplomat. I will say no more, for he has long since gone to his everlasting rest.
Major Plumer, of the York and Lancaster Regiment, was deputed to raise an irregular mounted regiment for service in Matabeleland. He arrived in Kimberley early in 1896 just as I was leaving with the Griqualand West Brigade for a fortnight's training at Cradock. I gave him the use of my office as a recruiting depot.
On my return from the manoeuvres, the Major told me that very few men had come forward. This I could well understand, as most of the volunteers inclined to go on active service were members of my force, and had only just returned from the Colony. I promised to help him all I could, being most anxious to assist Rhodes in stamping out the rebellion, which might otherwise have proved fatal to his schemes. Sir Gordon Sprigg would not allow a Cape contingent to proceed to Rhodesia, as he feared that if the forces there met with a reverse it might react on the Cape. He consequently felt obliged to retain all the Colonial forces at his disposal to meet such an emergency.
As Commanding Officer, I had the power, in ordinary times, to give men six months' leave of absence without reference to headquarters. I therefore consented to 130 members of all ranks of the Diamond Fields Horse going on six months' leave. Their coming forward gave a great impetus to recruiting. Within a few weeks, Plumer secured the required number, and they were despatched to Mafeking in batches. Here they received their horses, and were put through their final course of training.
It struck me at all times that Plumer was very thorough in all he did. On one occasion he showed me a list he had prepared of what he thought was necessary to provide for the long march of over 500 miles. He had all the details thoroughly worked out, even to the number of mules, wagons, spare horses, food and fodder that would be required. He had not forgotten much. He invited me to offer suggestions, and I did so in a few sentences. He thanked me and took my advice, without considering it infra dig to accept tips from an amateur. Indeed, his attitude was quite unlike that of many other regular officers I have met in my time, who, more often than not, carry an air of superiority even above that of a Field Marshal.
Plumer's great difficulty concerned saddles and bridles. He was 150 short of the actual requirements, and he could not secure any more, having purchased all available supplies. I managed, however, to assist him to obtain the required number; I need not here disclose how this was done. These supplies were all replaced at the end of hostilities. The "trick" inconvenienced nobody, nor were there any losses; in fact, it was a case of "new saddlery for old."
When the last batches of men had left Kimberley, Plumer proceeded to Mafeking to put the finishing touches to the coming campaign. Earl Grey, who had just been appointed Administrator of Rhodesia, and the members of his staff, were in waiting ready to accompany Plumer's force.
At the request of Rhodes, I visited Mafeking to discuss commissariat matters, and to arrange transport with certain contractors, which I succeeded in doing. Messrs. Weil Brothers placed some rooms at the disposal of Earl Grey and staff, so we all lived together in a limited space.
After dinner one evening, Earl Grey said to me confidentially, "Harris, what do you think of Plumer?" I must be pardoned for telling my readers that in mufti Plumer was not the beau ideal of a military man. This thought was probably running through the Earl's mind when he put the question to me. My answer was, "I have never served under him, and I do not know whether he has been on active service, but from what I have seen of him he knows his job. He is very thorough in every detail, and is not above seeking information and taking advice. Above all, he is an English gentleman." I added that it was not always the officer who waxed his moustache who made the best soldier. As quick as lightning, Earl Grey inquired, "How about the eyeglass?" (Plumer usually wore one). "Well," I answered, "The two bravest officers I had the honour to serve under in the early Native Wars were Colonels Owen Lanyon and Charles Warren, and they both wore monocles."
The Earl informed me that early the next morning one squadron was leaving for the front, and before departing would be addressed by Plumer. He said he would be glad if I would ride over with him, and tell him what I thought of matters. The next day we rode to the parade ground where the squadron was drawn up with transport, ready to march. Well-mounted and beautifully groomed, Plumer dashed up in uniform. He looked and played the part, and he addressed the men in a few well-chosen words. He saw that everything was in apple-pie order, inspected the wagon lists, and gave a nod to the Captain indicating his satisfaction. Then the command was given— "Fours right," "Walk march," and off went the 100 men on their long and arduous march. After we had cheered them, Lord Grey, turning round to me, said, "Well, Harris, what's your opinion now: I replied, "He'll do." His Lordship answered, "I agree."
Colonel Plumer was good enough to mention my name in the book he wrote on the Matabele campaign.
The next time I saw Plumer was in Ireland, in July, 1908. He was a general then, and was in command at the Curragh, where the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment was stationed at the time.
In addition to presenting Colonel Kekewich with a sword of honour—the hilt was studded with rough diamonds—the people of Kimberley and Beaconsfield had subscribed a large sum of money for the purpose of presenting the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment with replicas of the Honoured Dead Memorial erected in Kimberley, as a token of gratitude to the regiment for the important and gallant part it played during the siege. That intended for the officers' mess was composed of solid silver, while that for the sergeants' mess was of gun metal and silver. Both were excellent and artistic designs manufactured by the Goldsmiths' Company of London. I was chosen to proceed to Ireland to present the plate to the Loyal North Lanes, and readily accepted the honour. Captain Humphreys, of the Kimberley Regiment, accompanied me as A.D.C. In due course we arrived at our destination, and were the guests of Colonel Coleridge, commanding the battalion. We had a right royal reception. A field day was first staged for our benefit, when all the troops—numbering about 7,000—turned out and had a hard morning's work. The march past of all arms took place about noon—it was a wonderful sight.
I had an excellent view of the parade from a wagon, on which General Plumer had erected seats. I admired most the Field Artillery when it galloped past in batteries, and almost shook the very ground it rumbled over.
At the end of the parade General Plumer came to me and said, "Well, Harris, what did you think of the show?" There could be only one reply, which I summed up in the word "Excellent." That night there was a garrison mess dinner, limited to officers of certain rank. I was the guest of the evening, and my health was drunk after General Plumer had spoken flatteringly about me. It was a great evening, which I shall never forget.
The following day it was announced that I would officially present the plate to the Loyal North Lanes. The weather was ideal, and reminded me of a sunny autumn morning in South Africa. The regiment paraded in full strength, wearing scarlet tunics. A hollow square was formed, and both brass and fife bands turned out. The latter band beat the drums which had been captured in the Crimea, and which I was informed had not been used publicly for thirty years, but which were brought out on this red-letter day.
The plate was placed on a table, and I delivered the following address:
" Colonel Coleridge, officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the ist Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, their Worships the Mayors and citizens of Kimberley and Beaconsfield have deputed me to present to your Battalion this plate, models of the structure erected in Kimberley to the sacred memory of those gallant and heroic men who fell in the defence of the towns of Kimberley and Beaconsfield, while besieged during the late Boer War. Included among the honoured names inscribed on the tablets are several non-commissioned officers and men of your Battalion who fell fighting for their Queen and country—a far more eloquent tribute than words would convey to the sacrifice and devotion of your Battalion in preventing a British town falling into the hands of the enemy. Your Battalion had at that time for its Commanding Officer, Colonel (now Major-General) R. G. Kekewich, whose untiring and ceaseless efforts and devotion to duty, powers of organisation and determination were great factors in the defence of the two townships. You will remember that the citizens of Kimberley and Beaconsfield presented Major-General Kekewich with a beautiful sword of honour in recognition of the great services he had rendered—a compliment that was highly appreciated by Major-General Kekewich and his regiment. Your regiment has rendered noble service to the Empire in many lands, and in several hard fought battles it has covered itself with glory; but I make bold to say that it never did a greater service than did its ist Battalion in the defence of Kimberley, for without its help the town could not have withstood the siege, and if Kimberley had fallen, revolt would have spread, there would have been a general rising in the Cape Colony, and in all probability South Africa would have been lost to the Empire. Kimberley and Beaconsfield will never forget what they owe to your regiment. They will always bear in affectionate and grateful memory the invaluable services of your Battalion, and they will carefully and reverently preserve and maintain the graves of your comrades who fell in the defence of the towns, and they ask you to accept this plate as a sentimental recognition of heartfelt gratitude and warm admiration for services rendered and heroism displayed by your Battalion both in relieving the town and in defending the hearths and homes of the inhabitants."
Colonel Coleridge in accepting the presentation said:
"On behalf of Lieut-General Sir Richard Farren and the officers and sergeants of this Battalion, I beg to thank you Col. Harris and Captain Humphreys, and through you the Mayors and citizens of Kimberley and Beaconsfield, for their kind thoughts so tangibly expressed. The event of this day will, if possible, concrete the good feelings that already exist between all members of this Battalion and the citizens of Kimberley and Beaconsfield.
It is, sir, the hope of all, that the wave of depression passing over South Africa will soon disappear, and that Kimberley will thus be restored to its former prosperity. I will read letters of apology from my Colonel, Lieut-General Sir Richard Farren, and Major-General Kekewich, and the sentiments they express are fully endorsed by all ranks of this Battalion."
During the afternoon there was a big garden party. Marquees were erected, refreshments were provided, and the bands played. This function was attended by the officers and ladies of the garrison, and was a brilliant affair, the like of which I had never before witnessed. The weather held good throughout, which lent additional pleasure to the proceedings.
After official farewells, Captain Humphreys and I left the following day for England, via Dublin, in an Irish jaunting car. When about half way on the main road of the Camp, thousands of soldiers in fatigue dress rushed from the side turnings of the cantonments, and gave us cheer after cheer. This send-off must have been prearranged. We halted for a few moments to acknowledge the great compliment, and then drove off hurriedly as we had little spare time in which to catch our train Then a second surprise awaited us, for at the end of the roads massed bands were stationed out of sight. When we got abreast of them, they struck up "For he's a jolly good fellow," and other popular numbers. It was a wonderful send-off, fit for a King. We galloped all the way to the railway station, and just managed to catch our train.
I had travelled 14,000 miles to make the presentation, but the kindness, courtesy and hospitality received more than repaid me for so long a journey.
The Major Plumer of 1896 is now Field Marshal Lord Plumer. Good luck to him!