The 2nd Battalion sailed on the Dilwara on 2nd December 1899 and arrived on 25th December. Along with the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, the 1st South Lancashire Regiment, and the 1st York and Lancaster Regiment, they formed the 11th Brigade under Major General Woodgate, and part of the Vth Division under Sir Charles Warren.
Two battalions of the 10th Brigade, the 2nd Royal Warwicks and the 1st Yorkshire Regiment, were left in Cape Colony, and the remainder of the division disembarked at Durban in order to take part in the relief of Ladysmith. At the time of their arrival the operations were at a standstill, Colenso having been fought on 15th December, and General Buller being unable to do anything until the reinforcements arrived.
Sir Charles Warren's division was taken to Frere as the battalions arrived, and on 10th January 1900 he set out from Frere to Springfield. The operations undertaken between 18th and 22nd January are briefly set forth under the 2nd Queen's (Royal West Surrey), —the 2nd Brigade, of which that regiment formed a part, having also been put under Sir Charles Warren.
In the actions about Venter's Spruit on the 19th, 20th, and 21st January the 11th Brigade was on the British right. On those dates the King's Own had no very heavy fighting, although other battalions of the brigade had serious casualties. On the 20th, when the fighting was very severe on the right centre, the brigade headquarters, with the 2nd King's Own and the 1st South Lancashire Regiment, were with the artillery, six batteries, which were massed on or about Three-Tree Hill, south-west of Spion Kop.
Roughly the Boer position was two sides of a square: one side Brakfontein and Vaal Krantz, facing southeast towards Potgeiter's Drift and Spearman's Hill, still held by General Lyttelton; the other side facing south-west towards Warren's lines. Spion Kop, a high hill, lay at the angle of the two sides.
On the 22nd it was decided that Spion Kop must be taken. Next day it was reconnoitred, but chiefly on the south-east side, that being the portion of the hill which could not be seen from the other Boer positions. At 7 pm General Woodgate decided to assault from the south - west face, and Colonel Thorneycroft, of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, had barely time to ride out and note some landmarks in the dusk.
About 10.30 pm General Woodgate marched from the rendezvous, near Warren's chief camp. His force was the 2nd Royal Lancaster, six companies of the Lancashire Fusiliers, Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, 180 men and 18 officers, and a half-company Royal Engineers, supported by two companies Connaught Rangers and the newly arrived Imperial Light Infantry, a Natal raised corps. Unofficial accounts, including that of Mr Oppenheim, state that two companies of the South Lancashire Regiment formed part of the attacking force, and this is evidently correct, judging by the casualties. When the troops, now extended in line, were near the crest they were challenged. As arranged before hand, they at once lay down and the Boers fired. When Colonel Thorneycroft thought that the magazines of the Boer rifles had been emptied he gave the command to charge. This was done, and about 4 am the crest was carried. The Boers fled. About ten of our men were wounded up to this time.
General Woodgate ordered a trench and breastworks to be made. The darkness and a heavy mist made it impossible "to get the exact crest for a good field of fire". The rocky ground and a want of proper tools added to the difficulties; however, a shallow trench about 200 yards long was dug and occupied by the Royal Lancaster, Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, and the Lancashire Fusiliers. There was some intermittent rifle - firing through the mist, and before it lifted, men who had been pushed forward found that the trench did not command the ascent, there being much dead ground not 200 yards away. About 8 am the mist cleared, and the enemy then commenced to pour in that awful shell and rifle fire which was to last throughout the whole day. It was now seen that Spion Kop was not the commanding feature it was thought to be, but that it was itself commanded by several mountains which had been intrenched and fortified by the enemy. The trench which had been made by General Woodgate's men was found to be of little use, and troops had to be taken forward by rushes, and lying down near the edge of the plateau, they had there to use what cover they could find. Many most gallant attempts were made to hold patches of rocks. Often all the officers and men in these advanced positions were killed or wounded. This happened over and over again throughout the day. Between 8.30 and 9 am General Woodgate was mortally wounded. Lieutenant Blake Knox states that after receiving his wound the general ordered a signal message to be sent to Sir Charles Warren to the effect, "We are between a terrible cross - fire and can barely hold our own. Water is badly needed. Help us". This message is mentioned by Mr Oppenheim also, but is not mentioned in the White Book, and may never have been received. Mr Blake Knox's statement is valuable, however, as showing that the general was convinced at that early hour of the great difficulty we should have in holding the hill. Colonel Thorneycroft, in his report of 26th January 1900, mentions that when General Woodgate was wounded Colonel Blomfield of the Lancashire Fusiliers assumed command, but he too was shortly after wounded. About 10.30 Colonel Crofton, who is said by Mr Oppenheim and Mr Blake Knox to have assumed command, sent off a message to General Warren, via the headquarters' signallers at Swartz Kop. Much controversy has raged over the exact words. Colonel Crofton and Captain Martin said the words were, "General Woodgate killed, reinforcements urgently required". General Warren says that as received the words were, "Reinforce at once or all lost, general dead". It matters little which is correct, as the latter statement was absolutely justified, and it is unlikely that had the wording been as claimed by Colonel Crofton there would have been any difference in General Buller's decision to put Colonel Thorneycroft in command. To blame Colonel Crofton or Captain Martin for not writing the message is too ridiculous. Thorneycroft about 12.30 received a message from General Warren that he was to take command, the messenger being shot dead while delivering the order. Throughout the whole day the men on the left held their advanced line, but on the right and in the centre not only was the remnant of the advanced line driven in, but that part of the trench was for a time vacated. Colonel Thorneycroft says: "The Boers closed in on the right and centre. Some men of mixed regiments at right end of trench got up and put up their hands; three or four Boers came out and signalled their comrades to advance. I was the only officer in the trench on the left, and I got up and shouted to the leader of the Boers that I was the commandant and that there was no surrender. In order not to get mixed up in any discussion I called on all men to follow me, and retired to some rocks farther back. The Boers opened a heavy fire on us. On reaching the rocks I saw a company of the Middlesex Regiment advancing. I collected them up to the rocks, and ordered all to advance again. This the men did, and we reoccupied the trench and crest line in front". The other accounts do fuller justice to Thorneycroft's own splendid bravery and determination.
During the afternoon reinforcements arrived, first the Infantry, and the 2nd Scottish Rifles, — the latter coming from Potgeiter's and ascending the southern slope. Again a wretched discussion arose as to who should command. However, Colonel Thorneycroft remained at least practically in command.
Before 10 am General Warren had wired to General Lyttelton, "Give every assistance you can on your side". General Lyttelton at once sent off Bethune's Mounted Infantry, two squadrons; the 2nd Scottish Rifles and the 3rd King's Royal Rifles,—the first two to report themselves at the top of Spion Kop, but on the extreme right, and the King's Royal Rifles to scale a lofty peak, or rather two peaks, north-east of Spion Kop. These orders were splendidly carried out, the King's Royal Rifles doing magnificent work, getting to the top of the hill and capturing the peaks. General Lyttelton seems to have become unnecessarily nervous about his people, because at 3 pm he signalled to the King's Royal Rifles, "Retire steadily till further orders". At 3.30 and 4.50 these messages were repeated, the latter by messenger; but, fortunately for all parties, the messages were not received, for at 6 pm the officer commanding the King's Royal Rifles signalled, "We are on top of hill. Unless I get orders to retire I shall stay here"; but "Retire when dark" came back. This message was sent off at 6 pm. Half an hour later General Lyttelton received from General Warren a wire saying, "The assistance you are giving most valuable. We shall try to remain in statu quo during to-morrow". Colonel Thorneycroft does not say whether he knew that the King's Royal Rifles were to withdraw; the point seems to be of very great importance if he is to be blamed for retiring. The evacuation by our people of a hill, the possession of which was important, if not vital, to the defence of Spion Kop, was not an encouragement to men who had borne such a burden as had fallen to the devoted band on the bullet-and-shell-swept plateau that day. During the afternoon the Boers had not again attempted to rush the plateau, and their rifle-fire had slackened a little, but their shell-fire was heavier than ever. Mr Oppenheim states that seven shells per minute fell for a time.
At 2.30 Colonel Thorneycroft sent a message to Sir Charles Warren to the effect that the enemy's guns were sweeping the whole top, asking what further reinforcements could be sent "to hold the hill to-night", that water was badly needed. In a postscript he added, "If you wish to really make a certainty of hill for night you must send more infantry and attack enemy's guns". At 6.30 Colonel Thorneycroft again wrote Sir Charles Warren, "The troops which marched up here last night are quite done up ... They have had no water, and ammunition is running short". After stating that he 'thought' it impossible to permanently hold the hill as long as "the enemy's guns can play on it", he requested instructions, and wound up, "The situation is critical".
Up till dark Colonel Thorneycroft seems to have had no answer to any of these messages. After dark—the hour is uncertain, and is variously given, but probably about eight—he states that he consulted officers commanding the Royal Lancaster and Scottish Rifles. These agreed that the hill was untenable, and some time after the troops were drawn in and marched off. Mr Oppenheim says Colonel Thorneycroft came round the trenches on the crest as late as 11 pm and then said the men were to go down.
When one considers the heroic conduct of the officers and men on the hill, including always the King's Royal Rifles on the twin peaks, one is struck by the apparent lack of interest displayed by General Warren. He has been severely criticised by his chiefs, and one is forced to think criticism was justified. Apart from purely military or tactical questions—such as, "Was everything possible done by Hart's and Hildyard's men to relieve the awful pressure on the Kop?" "Was every possible step taken at the earliest possible moment to ensure that the hill would be made safe as soon as darkness set in and the defenders relieved?"—ordinary common-sense demanded that Sir Charles should have at least come to the bottom of or partly up the hill, so that he could communicate by messenger more quickly with those on the top. Ordinary feeling demanded that he should have given Colonel Thorneycroft every encouragement to hold on by reciting what was being done to ensure the safety of the hill at night, if anything practical was being done, and it should not have been left to a chance messenger (Mr Churchill) to volunteer to go to the top. Mr Churchill was twice up,—once at dusk, once after dark. When he arrived the second time Colonel Thorneycroft had already decided to retire.
For the withdrawal of the King's Royal Rifles Sir Charles Warren cannot be blamed, and as that order was given from near Potgeiter's, one would imagine that General Buller approved of its being sent. The point is not brought out in the despatches, but it is important. Lieutenant Blake Knox says l that when taken a prisoner by the Boers on the 25th he learned that they were greatly disheartened by our capture of the twin peaks, that they considered these the key to the position, as, if the Boers regained the Kop, they in turn would be enfiladed by our men on the peaks. Various writers on the Boer side who were present have expressed the same view; while our own people at Ladysmith say they saw preparations for retiral being made by the Boers, so far confirming these views. In his statement to the War Commission Sir Charles Warren suggested that the withdrawal of the King's Royal Rifles from the twin peaks was done by order of Sir Redvers Buller, and that that withdrawal may have caused Major Thorneycroft to decide upon the evacuation of Spion Kop. When the history of Spion Kop is written the question of the peaks cannot be left out of account. The British losses on the 24th are set down at 28 officers and 175 men killed, 34 officers and 520 men wounded, 6 officers and 280 men missing. Some of the missing were undoubtedly killed. The Royal Lancasters lost 3 officers and at least 34 men killed, 4 officers and over 100 men wounded, 1 officer and about 50 men missing. In his despatch of 30th January 1900 (White Book, p 24) Sir Redvers Buller "bears testimony to the gallant and admirable behaviour of the troops", and says, "the Royal Lancasters fought gallantly".
After retiring across the Tugela to Spearman's Camp General Buller gave his men a few days' rest before making his next attempt at Vaal Krantz. On the 5th February that attempt was begun. It will be remembered that the Lancashire Brigade, now under General Wynne, demonstrated against the Boer left at Brakfontein, while the real attack was developed opposite Vaal Krantz by General Lyttelton. The Lancashire Brigade did their part very well. Their losses were not heavy.
The 2nd Royal Lancaster and South Lancashire Regiment took part in the fighting between 13th and 27th February, the other two battalions being left to guard the bridge at Springfield and other points. On the 22nd General Wynne, whose brigade for the time being was the 2nd Royal Lancaster, 1st South Lancashire, and the Rifle Reserve Battalion, endeavoured to capture hills east of Grobelar's and north of Onderbrook Spruit. In this the brigade had very severe fighting, the South Lancashire Regiment being the first line. That day General Wynne was wounded and the brigade lost its second brigadier.
The York and Lancasters arrived at Colenso on the 27th, and the three regiments, along with the West Yorks, were put under Colonel Kitchener, and took part in the final and successful assault on the works between Railway Hill and Terrace Hill, and on the latter hill itself (see 2nd Queen's).
"General Kitchener's Brigade . . . gained the railway cutting. He then directed the West Yorkshire and the Royal Lancaster Regiments to attack Railway Hill; but the men of the latter, seeing the main position, Terrace Hill on their left front, went straight at it, and were stopped by a heavy fire from the sangars in the valley. General Kitchener at once remedied the mistake and directed the South Lancashire on the right of the Royal Lancaster, between them and the West Yorkshire, who were then gaining the crest of Railway Hill. The South Lancashire pressed forward and, aided by the artillery-fire, captured the sangars in the valley, taking a few prisoners and killing many of the enemy ... The sangars in the valley were soon taken, though, I regret to say, at the cost of the life of Colonel M'Carthy O'Leary, who fell while gallantly leading his regiment; and the Royal Lancaster and South Lancashire, pressing on, well supported by the York and Lancaster on the right and the 4th Brigade on the left, soon gained the summit of the hill and the day was won".
Between 13th and 27th February the Royal Lancaster lost 2 officers and 28 men killed, and 8 officers and 145 men wounded.
Three officers and 18 men were mentioned in despatches by General Buller for exceptional gallantry in the relief operations. Two men were recommended for the distinguished conduct medal for conspicuous gallantry on Spion Kop.
When General Buller attacked the Boer position north of Ladysmith the Vth Division, now under Hildyard, marched up the railway or by the direct road, not taking part in the turning movement by Helpmakaar. In the capture of Botha's Pass the 10th Brigade took and occupied Van Wyk's Hill (see 2nd Queen's and 2nd Middlesex), and the 2nd Brigade and the 11th or Lancashire Brigade carried the pass itself, both brigades doing admirable work. A few days afterwards, on 11th June, there was a stiff battle at Alleman's Nek, in which the 2nd and 10th Brigades did the active work, the 11th being with the baggage and in support.
After the Laing's Nek position was turned and the Natal-Pretoria line occupied, the 11th Brigade were largely employed in taking and afterwards in garrisoning the Wakkerstroom-Vryheid-Utrecht district, a very troublesome and difficult piece of country.
In his final despatch of 9th November 1900 General Buller mentioned 5 officers and 3 men of the battalion; and in Lord Roberts' final despatch 8 officers and 16 non-commissioned officers and men gained mention.
On 11th December 1900 the enemy fiercely attacked Vryheid, but were driven off with heavy loss. The garrison was composed of the 2nd Royal Lancaster and 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers Mounted Infantry. Colonel Gawne and another officer and 3 men were killed and 14 wounded. An outpost of about 35 men with an officer were surprised at the beginning of the attack and the party were taken prisoners.
On the 19th of the same month the York and Lancaster was engaged at Wooldrift, and often during the ensuing nine months some part of the brigade had fighting.
On 26th September 1901 the Mounted Infantry of the Vth Division gained great glory at Fort Itala and Fort Prospect. It will be remembered that General Louis Botha had massed his forces in the south-east of the Transvaal for another great effort to invade Natal. On 17th September he ambushed and destroyed Major Gough's force of 200 Mounted Infantry, chiefly of the 4th Brigade with a few South Lancashire. Botha then moved against the two forts. At Itala the garrison was two guns 69th EFA, three companies Mounted Infantry, and one maxim. The Boers under Botha, Opperman, and others numbered between 1800 and 2000 men. Immediately after twelve midnight, 25th and 26th, the attack commenced, and continued with little cessation until 7.30 PM, when the Boers drew off defeated and discouraged. Our losses were 1 officer and 21 men killed, 5 officers and 54 men wounded; those of the Royal Lancaster being 3 men killed and 8 wounded.
At Fort Prospect the garrison was composed of 35 men of the Dorset Mounted Infantry and 51 of the Durham Militia Artillery. The Boers numbered about 500. The attack commenced at 4.30 am on the 26th, and lasted thirteen hours. Here again the Boers were driven off with heavy loss.
In his despatch of 8th October 1901 Lord Kitchener said, "The successful defence of these two places reflects the greatest credit on Major Chapman and Captain Rowley, and on all ranks of the small garrisons under their respective commands". Several commendations in despatches came to the battalion for very gallant work on this occasion; and in Lord Kitchener's final despatch 4 officers and 5 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned.