The 1st Battalion sailed on the German on 28th October 1899, arrived at the Cape on 20th November, and was sent on to Durban. Along with the 2nd Scottish Rifles, 3rd King's Royal Rifles, and 1st Durham Light Infantry, they formed the 4th Brigade under Major General Honourable N G Lyttelton. The work of the brigade is sketched under the 2nd Scottish Rifles, and of the Natal relief army generally under the 2nd Queen's.
The losses of the 1st Rifle Brigade at Colenso were trifling. At Vaal Krantz on 5th and 6th February their casualties were 5 men killed and 5 officers and 76 men wounded. For that engagement 4 officers and 4 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in General Buller's despatch of 8th February 1900.
The battalion took part in the heavy work between 13th and 27th February, and won the commendation of General Buller. In his telegram of 20th February the general mentioned 3 infantry battalions, one of which was the 1st Rifle Brigade.
On 18th February there fell to the Durham Light Infantry and 1st Rifle Brigade the task of attacking the nek between Greenhill and Monte Cristo. They wasted no time, and were soon in the laager behind the nek. On the 23rd these two battalions crossed the river, and in the forenoon received orders to support Hart's attack on Inniskilling Hill, but the attack was over before they arrived at the hill-foot. During the next four days, except on the 25th, the battalion was constantly fighting, being the leading battalion on the left of the line in the final assault on the 27th. In the fourteen days' fighting the Rifle Brigade's losses, including those of officers and men in the Composite Rifle Battalion, were approximately 14 men killed, 8 officers and 117 men wounded.
Five officers and 10 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in General Buller's despatch of 30th March 1900, 3 of the latter being awarded the distinguished conduct medal, another man of the Mounted Infantry company getting that medal at Alleman's Nek. Captain H N Congreve brought a VC to the regiment, if not to the 1st Battalion, by his conspicuous gallantry in assisting to rescue the guns at Colenso on 15th December 1899.
The 4th Brigade took part in the turning movement via Helpmakaar in the first half of May 1900, and while the 2nd, 10th, and 11th Brigades turned the Laing's Nek position via Botha's Pass, the 4th sat in front of it. After Alleman's Nek, 11th June, the 4th Brigade was sent along the Pretoria Railway. On 28th July Major General Cooper with the Rifle Brigade and 3rd King's Royal Rifles took over Heidelberg from Hart. About that town the 1st Rifle Brigade was stationed for a long period.
On 9th October 1900 a disastrous incident occurred. The railway had been cut south of Heidelberg, and the same day Captain Paget, 2 other officers, a colour sergeant, and 14 riflemen went down the line on an engine to reconnoitre. 200 Boers were lying in wait, and had the little party completely at their mercy. Two officers and 1 man were killed, the others were wounded.
In General Buller's despatch of 9th November 1900 4 officers and 4 non-commissioned officers and men of the 1st Battalion were mentioned, and several officers of the regiment were also mentioned for good staff work. Twenty officers and 38 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in Lord Roberts' final despatch. These commendations embraced both 1st and 2nd Battalions.
On 26th December 1900 a part of the battalion had very severe fighting near the Oceana Mine, the company guarding the baggage being attacked while the others were out clearing farms. That day 10 men were killed and 2 officers and 40 men wounded.
Throughout 1901 the battalion was generally in the neighbourhood of the Transvaal - Natal Railway. In January and February a lot of marching was done, sometimes with a column, sometimes taking convoys to Ermelo and other places for other columns. After February they were chiefly engaged in watching the railway, having latterly about forty miles in safe keeping.
In Lord Kitchener's despatches during the war 8 officers and 7 non-commissioned officers and men of the Rifle Brigade were mentioned, but in the case of some of these the battalion is not stated. In the final despatch 14 officers and 14 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned.
The Rifle Brigade furnished many sections of Mounted Infantry, to follow whose doings would require a volume, as they had fighting all over the country. For a great part of 1901 one company did excellent work under Major M'Micking and Colonel Greenfell in the Nylstroom - Zand River Poort district, when substantial successes were scored. A party was with Major Gough when he had his disaster on the Blood River, 17th September 1901. On that occasion Lieutenant Blewitt and 1 rifleman were killed and 4 men wounded. The party did well, and an officer and man gained mention. Some of the Rifle Brigade were in the 13th Battalion Mounted Infantry and some in the 14th, both of which did splendid work under Bullock, Spens, and other commanders, chiefly in the Eastern Transvaal and the north-east of the Orange River Colony. A good idea of the services of these two battalions is to be had from Lieutenant Moeller's 'Two Years at the Front.'
The 2nd Battalion sailed from Crete on the Jelunga on 2nd October 1899, and reached Durban on the 26th. At 3 am on the 30th the battalion got into Ladysmith by rail, and after a hasty meal set out to join the 1st Devon, 1st Manchester, and 2nd Gordons under Ian Hamilton at Limit Hill, north of the town, where Sir George's centre was that day (see 1st Liverpool). The brigade did not have much to do beyond sending help to Colonel Grimwood's brigade on the right or east. During the forenoon the battalion and the 2nd Gordons deployed and lined the crest of Limit Hill, from which they covered the retreat of Grimwood's brigade, they themselves eventually retiring about 3 pm.
From the commencement of the siege the battalion held King's Post and Leicester Post on the north of the town, and, unlike some other battalions, they strained every nerve for weeks to make these posts absolutely unassailable. The rocky nature of the ground, the want of suitable tools, and the fact that many of the diggers had to be on duty in the trenches all night, made the task superlatively difficult Observation Post, about a mile in advance of King's Post, was till 9th November held by a weak detachment of the 5th Lancers, who were attacked on that day, and the Rifle Brigade had to reinforce them. The attack was repulsed. The battalion's losses were 1 officer and 1 man mortally wounded and 4 men wounded. They had now to garrison this post and to set about making it impregnable. One very remarkable piece of work done by the battalion was the keeping down by the Lee-Metford fire of 'sharpshooters, many of whom were officers', of the Boer artillery-fire at ranges between 2000 and 2800 yards. On the morning of 8th December it became known that General Hunter with 600 men of the Imperial Light Horse and Natal Carabiniers had blown up two big guns on Lombard's Kop and captured a maxim. This fired Colonel Metcalfe to do something similar, and he got Sir George's sanction to endeavour to destroy the howitzer on Surprise Hill. On the night of the 9th he reconnoitred the route, and on the 10th at 10 pm started with five companies 2nd Rifle Brigade and a few Engineers under the ever-ready Lieutenant Digby-Jones. The hill-top was reached; after some delay the howitzer was found, not in its emplacement; the explosive was inserted; a fuse was lit, but no explosion happened; another had to be set. This time the gun was destroyed; but meanwhile the Boers had gathered in force on the hillside, and our men had to charge with fixed bayonets, never firing a shot. Many Boers were bayoneted. Colonel Metcalfe lost 1 officer and 11 men killed, 36 wounded, and 10 prisoners or missing, but a bit of good work had been boldly and skilfully executed. Sir George White in his despatch of 23rd March 1900 remarks that "the companies were, on the way back, admirably handled by their captains ... The affair reflects great credit on Lieutenant Colonel C T E Metcalfe and his battalion".
At three on the morning of 6th January the battalion heard the furious rattle of musketry round the southern defences, and about 5.30 they were ordered to send six companies to Caesar's Camp, four miles off, arriving there about seven. Five companies were pushed into the firing line, which was distant from the enemy only 80 yards. "For nearly the whole day the fight raged fiercely, first one side then the other gaining a slight advantage, but we could not succeed in dislodging the Boers" from the south-east of the hill. At 3.30 the enemy tried to rush forward, but were driven back, and shortly afterwards retreated under a heavy fire, "some companies firing their last round". The battalion this day lost 1 officer killed and 1 mortally wounded, and 20 men killed, 5 officers and 32 men wounded. That night officers and men lay on the stricken field soaked and physically wretched, but knowing that another big bit of work had been done. Five officers and 8 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in Sir George White's despatch of 23rd March 1900.
On 7th January the battalion was ordered to take over Waggon Hill from the 1st King's Royal Rifles. The Honourable A Dawnay, adjutant of the 2nd battalion, in the account which he gives of the siege, already quoted from, says: "On arriving at Waggon Hill we were not best pleased at our change of quarters; we found none of those snug burrows or palatial residences that we had built with so much care in our old habitation, and the defensive works were few and far between. All the weary digging had to be started afresh, only under more trying conditions, as it all had to be done by night, it being quite impossible to attempt anything of the sort by day, since we were continually exposed to shrapnel at the convenient range of 3200 yards. Quite two miles of front had to be fortified, but in a very short time a complete set of works made their appearance, continuous sangars occupied a large portion of our front, wire entanglements were laid down all round the front of our position, and abattis made in places".
Perhaps the King's Royal Rifles thought that they did all the digging desirable, but various writers support the statements contained in the quotation. General Ian Hamilton has almost a faultless record in the campaign. He added to his reputation on the 6th January, but it does seem almost a fault that he allowed the battalions occupying Waggon Hill and Caesar's Camp to sit there without working at their defences as their brethren on the north side of Ladysmith were doing.
After the relief of Ladysmith the garrison was given a period to rest and recuperate, and never did men deserve that more. They were ready to go forward when General Buller moved north, and the 2nd Rifle Brigade were brigaded under General Walter Kitchener with the 1st Devon, 1st Manchester, and 2nd Gordons. In the fighting at Rooi Kopjes, 24th July, and Amersfoort, 7th August, the battalion took no prominent part, but they were to get a great opportunity in good time. When the force arrived at Geluk, 23rd August, it was evident the Boers were about to make a stand. On the 26th, at a conference between Lord Roberts and General Buller, it was arranged that the troops of the latter, being the old Ladysmith garrison, should attack the enemy's position on the 27th.
The position was an extremely strong one, stretching for miles on either side of the Belfast-Koomati Poort Railway. Bergendal, by which name the battle has become known, is the name of a farm, the house and buildings of which are situated on, or rather a little to the east of, a kopje. This kopje and the buildings, which were seen to be strongly held, lie to the south of the railway and to the west of a long ridge or series of kopjes running roughly north and south. These ridges seem to have been the Boer main position. They had guns on these as well as on the hills north of the railway. Sir Redvers decided that Bergendal kopje must be the first point attacked. It was slightly isolated, and formed a definite objective. He placed the Manchester Regiment, four naval 12-pounders, two 4'7 guns, two 5-inch guns, the 61st Howitzer Battery, and the 21st Battery on a ridge lying south of, and roughly parallel to, a line drawn from Bergendal to the Boer main positions. The 42nd Battery was farther to the right of the Manchesters. A Battery RHA and the 53rd RFA fired from a point about one and a half mile north of the other artillery and close to the railway. For three hours these guns kept up a furious fire on the buildings and kopje, but the Boers would not shift. The infantry were then ordered to assault, the 2nd Rifle Brigade to attack from near where the A Battery was—that is, from the west—the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers from near the main artillery position, or the south. Between these battalions were the 1st Bevon and 2nd Gordons in support. The Rifle Brigade being extended to about ten paces, had reached a point 800 yards west of the kopje when there opened a terrific rifle-fire both from the kopje and from hills north of the railway. The attackers lay down, then after a great effort by our artillery the Rifle Brigade again advanced by rushes, and "there never was a waver from start to finish". The Boers of course bolted, but a pom-pom complete and 19 prisoners were taken: 14 of their dead were found. The Rifle Brigade lost 3 officers killed or mortally wounded, and 21 riflemen killed or died of wounds; 7 officers and 63 men were wounded. The losses of the other battalions were very slight. Many heroic deeds were done in the assault. Rifleman Durrant for carrying Corporal Weller a distance of 200 yards under a very heavy fire got the VC.
General Buller said: "The honours of the assault belong to the Rifle Brigade, as they had to attack that part of the kopje which had been most protected from our artillery-fire; but all the troops did splendidly, and the carrying of such a position, held as it was by resolute men (the famous Johannesburg Zarps), will always remain present to the minds of those who witnessed it as a most gallant feat of arms". After referring to the excellent way the maxims were handled and other dispositions made, Sir Redvers remarks: "The loss of the post at Bergendal led to the enemy abandoning in great haste the whole of their immensely strong position about Dalmanutha, and forced them to withdraw in great confusion beyond Machadodorp. In fact the capture of Bergendal by the Rifle Brigade and Inniskilling Fusiliers cleared the whole of the high veldt of the enemy".
Six officers and 8 non-commissioned officers and men of the 2nd Rifle Brigade were mentioned in General Buller's despatch of 13th September. Four officers and 3 non-commissioned officers were also mentioned in his final despatch.
The battalion crossed the railway along with General Buller and moved north towards Lydenburg, which, after some fighting, they reached on 7th September, and in that district they remained for a considerable time. Henceforth they were to have plenty of work and a fair amount of hardship, but they were to see no fighting to be compared with Bergendal. During the remainder of the campaign they were employed in the Eastern Transvaal. In March 1901 three companies accompanied Colonel Park on a night raid on Kruger's Post, which was entirely successful. In April the battalion was put into a column under General W Kitchener, and for the next three months did much hard marching, chiefly north of the Delagoa Railway. About the end of July 1901 the battalion took over a number of posts about Middelburg and garrisoned these for a long period.
For notes as to commendations by Lord Roberts, and also those earned under Lord Kitchener, see 1st Battalion.
The 4th Battalion sailed from England about 15th December 1901, and after their arrival in South Africa took part in the closing scenes in the Orange River Colony, when the infantry held the lines and the mounted men did the driving.
Composite Rifle Battalion
Towards the close of 1899 there arrived in Natal various drafts, among whom were the reservists for the 2nd Rifle Brigade, which had sailed from Crete before war was declared, and for the 1st and 2nd King's Royal Rifles, which had both been in South Africa before that date. These men were formed into a battalion commanded by Major Montagu-Stuart-Wortley of the King's Royal Rifles. During the time General Buller was at Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz the battalion was at Frere and afterwards at Chieveley, assisting Major General Barton in guarding the line and rail-head and in making demonstrations.
In the last and successful endeavour to relieve Ladysmith the battalion was put into the 11th (Lancashire) Brigade under Major General Wynne and had an honourable share in the fourteen days' fighting. They were the first troops to enter Colenso on 20th February. Next day they crossed the river, and on the 22nd had heavy fighting, gaining various positions, which were, however, as difficult to hold as to seize. On the night of the 22nd the Boers attacked the positions, coming up very close. Captain Baker-Carr's company rushed out with fixed bayonets, killed several of the enemy, and drove them off. On the 23rd it was necessary to relieve two companies holding two kopjes in advance.
The relief had to be effected by men and officers rushing out singly. In this movement 3 officers were wounded. On the 27th the battalion was posted on the slopes south of the river, and along with the Border Regiment was employed all day in long-range firing on the Boer positions.
Three officers of the battalion were mentioned in General Buller's despatch of 30th March and 3 men recommended for the distinguished conduct medal. Seven additional officers were mentioned in the general's final despatch. After marching into Lady-smith the men joined their regiments. An account of the battalion's work is given in the Rifle Brigade Chronicle of 1900.
General Buller, in his despatch of 30th March 1900, referring to Major Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, said, "I was much struck by the way in which a battalion made up of the drafts of three regiments, and officered chiefly by second lieutenants, worked under his command".
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