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Brett Hendey wrote: The Composite Regiment, Mounted Brigade, during the Relief of Ladysmith
During General Sir Redvers Buller’s operations to relieve the Siege of Ladysmith in late 1899 and early 1900, the Mounted Brigade of the relief force was commanded by the Earl of Dundonald. This Brigade was made up of Imperial cavalry regiments (1st Royal Dragoons, 13 Hussars and 14 Hussars [2 squadrons during early 1900]), and irregular Colonial mounted regiments (South African Light Horse, Bethune’s Mounted Infantry [moved to the Zululand border during February 1900] and Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry).
The Mounted Brigade also included the “Composite Regiment” under the command of Major (later General Sir) Hubert Gough. The main elements of the Composite Regiment were detachments of units that were besieged in Ladysmith. They were:
Imperial Light Horse (“A” Squadron)
Natal Carbineers (Estcourt/Weenen Squadron [on their home turf])
Natal Police Field Force (Detachment of about 40 men)
2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps Mounted Infantry (One company)
Smaller numbers of men came from the following units:
Natal Mounted Rifles (26 men)
Border Mounted Rifles (10 men)
Natal Police – Estcourt District Police (Number not known)
A company of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Mounted Infantry was decimated during the Battle of Talana (20/10/1899), most men being captured by the Boers. This unit was in the process of being re-formed during the relief operations and it is possible that some men from it were part of the Composite Regiment at this time. The RDF MI were certainly active after the relief.
The army units in the Composite Regiment (i.e. excluding the Natal Police) all represented regiments the greater parts of which were besieged in Ladysmith. The besieged men were awarded the Defence of Ladysmith clasp on their QSA’s. The Relief of Ladysmith and Tugela Heights clasps of their Composite Regiment counterparts are therefore comparative rarities.
Since the Composite Regiment included many men who spoke Dutch and Zulu, and were familiar with the area of operations, it performed an invaluable role in intelligence-gathering patrols, guiding and the carrying of messages. For example, early in the Siege a Natal Police trooper safely escorted a 5th Lancers officer through Boer lines into Ladysmith. Later, on 28/11/1899, Estcourt District Police led an in-strength patrol of the Composite Regiment as far as Colenso, where it came under fire from the Boers. Also, apart from providing the Bodyguard for General Buller, the Natal Police provided orderlies for Major-General H J T Hildyard and the Earl of Dundonald.
The Composite Regiment took an active part in the Battle of Colenso (15/12/1899). It was part of the force that assaulted Hlangwane, the hill on the British right that was the Boers main stronghold south of the Tugela River. The assault failed for want of infantry support, although it was the disasters that befell the Irish Brigade and guns of the Royal Artillery that sealed the British defeat during this battle.
After General Buller shifted his attention to the Boer right flank in the vicinity of Spioenkop, it was the Composite Regiment that provided him with an early, but limited and short-lived success by crossing the Tugela, outflanking Spioenkop and ambushing a Boer patrol near Acton Homes. Had this success been exploited, it might have provided a ‘side-door’ access to Ladysmith from the west and so averted the costly assaults across the Tugela from the south that were to follow.
These assaults mainly involved the infantry, although the Composite Regiment was again actively involved in February at the start of the Tugela Heights campaign, when it repeated the attack on Hlangwane and other Boer-held hills south of the Tugela and, this time with infantry support, captured them.
It fell to men of the Composite Regiment to finally break the Siege of Ladysmith on 28/2/1900, when an advance party, which was probing the Boer lines after the conclusion of the Tugela Heights battles, found an opening and galloped into the town, thus bringing to an end the 118-day siege. Although the role of the Composite Regiment in this epic event is not disputed, reports on the units and the numbers of men involved do differ. The units most often credited are the Imperial Light Horse and Natal Carbineers. However, men of the Natal Police were certainly present, while the Natal Mounted Rifles and Border Mounted Rifles have also been credited, but perhaps later overlooked because of the small numbers of men involved.
Amongst the lessons learnt by the British high command during the early months of the War was the need to counter the Boers with the use of mounted infantry, rather than regular cavalry, as well as to make greater use of the knowledge and skills of Colonial forces. In his autobiography, General Sir Hubert Gough wrote that he had “learnt more in one day with the Natal Carbineers than … in 10 years with the regular cavalry”.