The 1st Battalion was one of the four infantry battalions which, along with three cavalry regiments and three batteries of Field Artillery, were despatched from India to Natal immediately before war was declared, and when it was obvious that the Boers were massing their forces near the frontiers.
Fortunate it was that—thanks to the importunity of the Natal Government—Sir George White had the services of these Indian troops on his arrival on 7th October. One dreads to contemplate what the state of affairs would have been had India not been able to afford them or shown any dilatoriness in despatching them.
The 1st Devons were in Ladysmith when Sir George White landed at Durban to take command of the forces in Natal. They were not present at the battle of Glencoe or Talana Hill, but they were soon to have a chance of showing what sterling stuff they contained. They were brigaded with the 1st Manchesters and 2nd Gordons under Colonel Ian Hamilton, and it was this brigade which did so well at Elandslaagte and subsequently at Waggon Hill on 6th January.
The story of Elandslaagte was one of the few bright days when bright days were sadly wanting. On 18th October General French arrived at Ladysmith. Early on the morning of Saturday, the 21st, he went out northwards towards Elandslaagte, where it was known that a Boer force, which had cut the line to Dundee, was stationed. The general took with him part of the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 5th Lancers, five squadrons of the newly raised Imperial Light Horse, some Natal Volunteers, half the 1st Manchester Regiment, and the Natal Field Battery. After some skirmishing he found the Boers too strong for his small body, so about 9 am he wired for reinforcements. About two o'clock these came on the scene, the Devons, five companies 2nd Gordons, another squadron of the 5th Dragoon Guards, one of the 5th Lancers, the 21st and 42nd Batteries RFA The Boers were seen to be strongly posted on a ridge, but General French at once decided to attack. The infantry were put under Colonel Ian Hamilton. Roughly the formation was—the 5th Dragoon Guards, some Volunteers, and one battery on our extreme left; the Devons and a battery on the left centre, these to make for the left of the ridge. The Manchesters in the centre and the Gordons on their right rear to attack the extremity of the ridge, move along it, and crumple up the enemy. The 5th Lancers and Imperial Light Horse on our extreme right to work round the Boer left. In face of a terrible fire the Manchesters and Gordons pulled off their part of the task. The Boers were driven along the ridge, and the Devons pressed in, having assaulted two detached hills. When the enemy's guns were reached "and the end of the ridge gained from which the whole of the enemy's camp, full of tents, horses, and men, was fully exposed to view at fixed-sight range, a white flag was raised by the enemy, and Colonel Hamilton ordered the cease fire". Men rose up, thinking all was over, not yet having learned what an excess of individual initiative may lead to. At any rate the white flag was disowned by many Boers, who seized the grand target and poured in a fierce fire. Our men were staggered a bit, but soon gathered their wits, and, splendidly led, they charged and routed the remaining Boers, the cavalry charging through and through the enemy while they fled. Two guns and about 200 prisoners were taken, and Sir George estimated that 100 were killed and 108 wounded. The losses of the Devons were 4 officers and 29 men wounded.
Five officers and 1 non-commissioned officer were mentioned in Sir George White's despatch of 2nd December 1899 for good work on this occasion.
On 24th October Sir George White moved out again north of Ladysmith and fought the action of Rietfontein. The 1st Devons were present and lost 1 man killed and 5 wounded. The action is mentioned under the 1st Liverpool, the senior battalion present.
In the battle outside Ladysmith on 30th October (see 1st Liverpool) the 1st Devons were in the centre, under Colonel Ian Hamilton, and had little to do but cover the rather ragged retiral of Colonel Grimwood's brigade. During the siege the battalion did splendid work. In the great attack on 6th January, after the fight had lasted from 3 am till 5 pm, and notwithstanding every effort by half-battalions of the 1st King's Royal Rifles, 2nd King's Royal Rifles, and companies of various other regiments, the south-east portion of Waggon Hill was still held by the enemy. A quotation from Sir George White's despatch of 23rd March will best show how it was cleared: "At 5 pm Lieutenant Colonel C W Park arrived at Waggon Hill with three companies 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, which I had ordered up as a reinforcement, and was at once directed by Colonel Hamilton to turn the enemy off the ridge with the bayonet. The Devons dashed forward and gained a position under cover within 50 yards of the enemy. Here a fire-fight ensued; but the Devons were not to be denied, and eventually, cheering is they pushed from point to point, they drove the enemy not only off the plateau, but cleared every Boer out of the lower slopes and the dongas surrounding the position. Lieutenant Colonel Park went into action with four officers, but he alone remained untouched at the close. The total loss of the Devons was nearly 28 per cent of those engaged, and the men fired only 12 rounds per rifle. Captain A Menzies, 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment, with a few of his men, accompanied the Devons throughout. He also was wounded".
This magnificent charge has been described by many writers, and to the three companies of the Devons everything in the way of praise and admiration has been given.
Lieutenant J E I Masterton was awarded the Victoria Cross for volunteering to take a message to the Imperial Light Horse after he had headed a company of the Devons in the charge.
On the same day the post known as Observation Hill West, held by the remainder of the Devons, was attacked, but there the enemy was driven off without much difficulty.
Six officers and 7 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned by Sir George White for their work at Ladysmith.
Along with the rest of the Ladysmith garrison, the battalion took part in Sir R Buller's northward movement, their brigade companions being the 1st Manchester, 2nd Gordons, and 2nd Rifle Brigade, under General W Kitchener, the divisional commander being General Lyttelton. The division had fighting in July and August at Rooikopjes, Amersfoort, and several other places. On 27th August, in the action at Bergendal, the 2nd Rifle Brigade did most of the fighting, and suffered practically all the losses (see 2nd Rifle Brigade). Two officers of the 1st Devons were mentioned by General Buller for Bergendal. After this the IVth Division crossed the Koomati Poort Railway and marched towards Lydenburg. On 6th September the enemy were found holding a precipitous ridge 1800 feet above the valley, at a place called Paardeplatz. Buller and Ian Hamilton decided to attack. The leading regiments were the 1st Royal Scots, 1st Royal Irish, and 1st Devons. The advance of these battalions and their simultaneous arrival on the crest by diverse routes is highly praised by Lord Roberts in his despatch of 10th October 1900. Lydenburg was occupied next day.
In General Buller's final despatch of 9th November 1900, 6 officers and 5 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned. In Lord Robert's final despatch 21 officers and 37 non-commissioned officers and men of the Devonshire Regiment were mentioned, but these embraced both battalions.
Before the end of the war the 1st Devons were to know the Belfast-Dulstroom-Lydenburg district well, as they remained in it till the spring of 1902. During a great part of 1901 the battalion was in columns under Major General W Kitchener and other commanders, which operated both south and north of the Delagoa Railway, and did very excellent work.
In Lord Kitchener's despatches during the war 1 officer and 2 non-commissioned officers gained mention; and in his final despatch 5 officers and 6 non-commissioned officers and men of the Devons were mentioned.
The 2nd Battalion sailed on the Manilla about 20th October 1899, and arrived at the Cape on 15th November. They were at once sent to Durban, and, along with the 2nd Queen's, 2nd West Yorkshire, and 2nd East Surrey, formed the 2nd Brigade under Major General Hildyard. The work of the brigade is sketched under the 2nd Queen's.
At Colenso the Devons, like the remainder of the brigade, were not in the very worst of it; still their losses were serious enough, 9 men being killed, 5 officers and 60 men wounded, and 3 officers and about 33 men missing. When the guns got into trouble the West Yorks and East Surrey were pushed in that direction, while the 2nd Queen's and Devons went straight for Colenso village, which they actually entered, driving out the enemy. When the order to retire came the Devons were so far forward that they did not all get the command timeously, and Colonel Bullock, 2 officers, and about half a company could not get back. The story is told that the colonel, refusing to surrender, had to be knocked on the head by a Boer as the kindest and firmest method of bringing him to accept the odious facts. The loss of such a splendid fighting soldier was a most serious one for the battalion. In his despatch of 17th December General Buller says: "Colonel Bullock, 2nd Devons, behaved with great gallantry. He did not receive the orders to retire, and his party defended themselves and the wounded of the two batteries till nightfall, inflicting considerable loss on the enemy, and it was only when surrounded that he consented to surrender, because the enemy said they would shoot the wounded if he did not". The conduct of the battalion was also mentioned in the general's despatch.
In the fighting between 16th and 24th January at Venter's Spruit and Spion Kop the Devons were not very heavily engaged. On the 24th they were not far from the fated kop, and all day had to lie longing for a chance of helping their hard-pressed brothers. At Vaal Krantz they had to endure their shelling like the rest of the brigade, and lost 2 men killed and 32 wounded.
In the fighting between 13th and 27th February they again had their share. Their casualties were approximately 6 men killed, 2 officers and 77 men wounded. Ten officers and 11 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in General Buller's despatch of 30th March 1900 for their good work up to that date.
At Alleman's Nek, 11th June, the battalion was escort to the guns, and also sent some companies to occupy a threatened ridge on the right. After the border was crossed the battalion was chiefly employed on garrison duty at stations on the Natal-Pretoria Railway and in the south-east of the Transvaal. For a time they furnished the garrison of Mount Castrol, an isolated fort in an extremely wild district, while some portion of the battalion frequently did trekking with columns or convoys and skirmishing.
Seven officers and 2 non-commissioned officers were mentioned in General Buller's final despatch of 9th November 1900. One officer, 1 non-commissioned officer, and 1 private gained mention by Lord Kitchener. As to the mentions in the final despatches of Lords Roberts and Kitchener, reference is made to what has been noted under the 1st Battalion.
The following images are taken from Jacson's book on the 1st Devons: