The 1st Battalion sailed on the Scot in November 1899, and arrived at the Cape on the 28th of that month. They were sent to assist General French in the Colesberg district. After the battalion had been about a month in the colony they entered on an enterprise which was to prove most disastrous. In the early morning of the 1st January the Berkshires had successfully assaulted a hill forming part of the Colesberg defences. On the 4th the Boers had been driven from other hills, but there was still another hill—Grassey or Suffolk Hill—on the north-west portion of the defences which General French considered to be the key to the position.
On the 5th it was carefully reconnoitred, and the possibility of its capture was discussed with Colonel Watson. General French says: "I gave him a free hand to rush the position at night if he saw a favourable chance, but he was to inform me and all the troops in his neighbourhood of his intention to do so. I heard no more, but left Rensburg at 2 am and reached the Colesberg position shortly before dawn. At dawn we heard sharp musketry-fire in the direction of Grassey Hill. I directed Colonel Eustace to get his guns into position to assist the attack which I thought Colonel Watson must be making. The artillery got into action at once against the Grassey Hill defences, but in a few minutes I received news that nearly 300 men of the Suffolk Regiment had returned to camp, having received an order from 'some one' to retire". General French "considered that Colonel Watson and his four companies would have attained success had the majority of his men not been seized with panic and retired". The colonel and other 3 officers and 25 men were killed, and 1 officer and 23 men were wounded; 5 officers and over 100 men were taken prisoners. Night attacks are proverbially dangerous. Here the enemy had been found on the alert, and a murderous fire had been poured into the troops before they could get in with the bayonet or take cover.
Courts of inquiry were held, the evidence before which is printed in the proceedings of the War Commission. Captain Brett said that their orders were to charge without firing. They advanced up the hill, but were met by a heavy fire; the enemy appeared to be quite close. After a short interval the colonel gave the order to retire; confusion arose owing to the darkness and roughness of the ground. The colonel then ordered him to take the crest of the hill, where it seems the leading company still held its ground. Witness advanced as ordered, but appears to have done so with only a portion of his company. He was then wounded, and lay unconscious. On recovering he found himself among a number of killed and wounded. Shells from the British guns then commenced to fall among them. Eventually Captain Brett surrendered. The courts exonerated the officers and men, and it is noted that "no evidence, however, appears to have been given before any court of inquiry showing the circumstances of the panic in the rear of the force", as referred to by Lieutenant General French.
This affair was a very unfortunate beginning to the battalion's campaigning career, and it was a long time before it was again permitted to go into the fighting line—but the time did come.
After some service in the Orange River Colony the battalion moved to the Transvaal. In the beginning of July 1900 they were with General French, whose force was distributed about thirty miles south-east of Pretoria, and shortly advanced eastwards, occupying Middelburg on the 26th.
In August Lord Roberts made another great stride towards Koomati Poort. At Wonderfontein the Suffolks were placed under Mahon, the reliever of Mafeking, and with that officer joined French at Carolina on 6th September. Before that general could reach Barberton he had to cross mountains of great height, and one of the feats of the war was the taking of the guns and transport over these mountains. The infantry had to haul waggons up the one side and to hold on behind at the other side until the soles were knocked off their boots.
On 2nd and 3rd October French left Barberton for Machadodorp, and started thence for Heidelberg with three brigades of cavalry, three batteries of Horse Artillery, and one-half of the Suffolks. Almost every day the force was opposed, and there was much stiff fighting.
In the beginning of November Smith-Dorrien operated near Belfast, where there was a strong force of Boers.
Part of the Suffolks were with him, and on the 6th drove the enemy from a strong position.
Nine officers and 12 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in Lord Roberts' final despatches.
In November 1900 the Suffolks were railed down to the Bethulie-Aliwal North district to assist General Knox in the pursuit of De Wet, and also in keeping the enemy out of Cape Colony, and when the pressure there had relaxed they were sent north again. In the first quarter of 1901 part of the battalion accompanied Smith-Dorrien from Belfast district to Piet Retief and thence northwards again. The battalion was later taken to assist in the erecting and garrisoning of blockhouses in the Western Transvaal (Letter from Lieutenant Brooke, published in 'The Oxfordshire Light Infantry in South Africa'. He said: "Here on the left flank we had a desperate hot fight ... Two hundred of them got within 70 yards of one of our guns, and would have captured it but for a magnificent man in the Suffolk Mounted Infantry who was escorting the gun with only six men. He held his ground, gave the order to fix bayonets, then looking round saw a maxim strapped on the back of a mule. He got up, calmly walked back, and brought the maxim into action, driving off the Boers at once". Major Taylor in his official report specially mentioned the Suffolk Mounted Infantry).
It is satisfactory that after its unfortunate start the battalion purchased its redemption by consistently good work during a period of nearly two years.
The Mounted Infantry of the battalion saw much stiff fighting, and were in the brilliant action at Bothaville, 6th November 1900. (See Oxford Light Infantry.)
In Lord Kitchener's final despatch 3 officers and 5 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned.
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