About 18th December 1899 recruiting for this corps was opened at Cape Town; and before Lord Roberts commenced his advance from Bloemfontein to Pretoria the first regiment was organised, its work being to assist in protecting the railways and to repair bridges, culverts, and lines when broken. Without outside assistance the corps of Royal Engineers could not have faced the enormous amount of work naturally falling to their department. From the Railway Pioneer Regiment they received very valuable help. On the other hand, the Railway Pioneers were leavened by officers and non - commissioned officers of the Royal Engineers, who are always so efficient that they can infect all those who serve with them with esprit de corps in a marvellously short space of time. Of such value was the work of the Railway Pioneer Regiment that before the close of the war a fourth battalion had been organised. The battalions were employed chiefly on the Cape-Pretoria railway, but they were also on the Krugersdorp line, and sometimes operated as a fighting force a considerable distance from railways. The regiment also did admirable service on the armoured trains which did so much to make railway traffic possible during the guerilla stages.
In his evidence before the War Commission, vol i p 445, Lord Roberts said: "An enormous amount of reconstruction was carried out by the Railway Pioneer Regiment and the Railway Companies Royal Engineers. The Pioneer Regiment consisted almost entirely of civilian refugees, mostly mechanics from Johannesburg, and it rendered excellent service. To its aid and that of the Royal Engineer officers and men we were indebted for the fact that the railways very seldom lost touch with the fighting portion of the army, and that we were able to seize Johannesburg and Pretoria, distant about 1000 miles from our base upon the coast, and 260 miles from Bloemfontein, our advanced depot, with such rapidity that the enemy were unable to concentrate their resources and offer a strongly organised resistance".
When the 4th Derbyshire Regiment was attacked at Roodewal, Kroonstad district, on 7th June 1900, a detachment about 70 strong of the Railway Pioneer Regiment was present and in the fighting, which ended in the capture of the post. They lost Captain Gale and 4 men killed and about 16 wounded.
In the published despatches there is one from Major General Charles E Knox to Lieutenant General Kelly-Kenny forwarding a report by Lieutenant Colonel Capper, RE, commanding Railway Pioneers at Virginia, Kroonstad district, Orange River Colony, as to an attack delivered by the commandos of Muller and Boerman at daybreak on 14th June 1900. The enemy was "said to be about 800 strong, with one or two pom-poms, a maxim, and, I think, one field-gun, but this is uncertain. We had to hold rather an extended position, our left being in trenches on very broken ground and in thick scrub which there was no time to clear. The enemy got into this scrub and gave some trouble by sniping. The garrison consisted of four companies 3rd Battalion Royal Lancasters under Colonel North, about 250 fit for duty, and four companies Railway Pioneer Regiment under Major Seymour, about 300 fit for duty, together with 25 men Royal Irish (Rifles) Mounted Infantry under Lieutenant Davenport, 16 fit for duty. The attack was most pressed on our left, and was held most steadily by No 3 company Railway Pioneer Regiment, under Lieutenant Mitchell of that regiment: fighting was continued on all sides until about 11 am, when it quieted down, and the enemy had practically retired by the time a body of 170 Yeomanry, under Lieutenant Crane, arrived from the south at about noon ... The troops behaved very well and steadily. The Railway Pioneer Regiment in the advanced trenches, on the left especially, were most cool and collected, engaging the enemy at very close quarters. They were for part of the morning surrounded by the enemy in the scrub, but never lost their heads, and the enemy were ultimately driven out of the scrub by the advance through it of a line of reserve Railway Pioneer Regiment aided by half a company of militia". The losses of the regiment were Major Seymour and Lieutenant Clements and 5 non-commissioned officers and men killed; Lieutenant Mitchell and 2 non - commissioned officers and men wounded. Colonel Capper added that he could not "speak too highly of Lieutenant Mitchell, a young officer who was wounded in both thighs about 6 am in going from one trench to another to encourage the men, and remaining throughout the day in the most exposed trench, keeping his men, 22 in number, scattered in several small trenches, calm, ordering them not to waste ammunition, etc. I attribute to his example, and the very steady conduct of the men of his company in the advanced trenches, who suffered severely—one holding three men had one killed, and one holding five men had two killed,—the fact that our losses were so comparatively small. I especially deplore the loss of Major Seymour, whose loss will not only be felt by us as a regiment but by the whole of South Africa. He was killed while advancing with the extended line through the bush to clear out the snipers". Six dead Boers were found, four of them within 40 yards of Mitchell's trenches.
The regiment continued to do most excellent work, chiefly on the lines of communication between Bloemfontein and Pretoria, and their posts had constantly to be on the alert. In his telegram of 26th November 1900 Lord Roberts said: "Barton reports that Brakpan was attacked at 3 am on the 24th, and was defended against a fierce attack by 7 of the Railway Pioneer Regiment and 10 mounted infantry. Our men behaved splendidly, and drove off the enemy, who left 3 dead. A Transvaal flag was captured".
On 27th March 1901 the 1st Battalion had 1 man killed and Captain Mitchell, mentioned above, severely wounded near Boksburg.
In a telegraphic despatch of 21st November 1901 Lord Kitchener stated that Commandant Buys had been captured, after attacking a patrol of about 100 of the Railway Pioneer Regiment on the Vaal near Villiersdorp; and in the telegram of 23rd November he stated: "Further report of Major Fisher's engagement near Villiersdorp, 20th November, shows that during the night of 19th patrols sent from his post at Rietfontein, slightly in advance of South African Constabulary, on Kalkspruit, to seize ridge overlooking Landsdrift, found enemy in possession. At dawn Major Fisher moved forward towards ridge, and was attacked both from north and south, but gradually took up a position giving good cover to his small force. At 9 am his horses near south end of position stampeded, and in confusion enemy effected a lodgment. Major Fisher and Captain Langmore were both dangerously wounded, and the small parties taken in detail by the enemy, about 300 strong, were all forced to surrender by 10 am Colonel Rimington's column came up about 11 am, but enemy, except small rearguard, had gone off, releasing prisoners. Rimington's men captured Commandant Buys, who was wounded". The casualties of the Railway Pioneer Regiment were about 6 killed and 6 wounded. Captain A B Inglis was returned as severely wounded in addition to the officers named above. The regiment continued its good work, chiefly on the railways, down to the close of the war. Captain H C Thorold (Leicester Regiment, attached) was killed at Rietfontein on 18th February 1902.
The Mentions gained were as follows:—
LIEUTENANT GENERAL KELLY-KENNY's DESPATCH.—Lieutenant Mitchell deserves special recognition. Previous to the attack on post, during the action, and since, Lieutenant Colonel Capper has been untiring in his duties.
LORD ROBERTS' DESPATCHES; 2nd April 1901.—Majors Q H Goodwin, awarded CMG, N Wilson, Captain W E C Mitchell, Quartermaster Sergeant W Cartledge, Company Sergeant Major S Beaton, Sergeant (now Captain) C E Marchant, Corporals T M'Meekan, G M Smythe, Privates S Stafford, W Tire.
9th September 1901.—Corporals W J Thomas, R Mackie, S Richards, J R Shipley, J W Roach, Lance Corporal C Goulding, Privates J Holmes, W Doons, G Kramert.
LORD KITCHENER'S DESPATCHES: 8th March 1901.—Lieutenant Evans.
8th July 1901.—Sergeant J A Anderson with 3 men, on railway patrol, surprised 50 Boers at Doornkop, killed 2, wounded several, and took 5 horses. Sergeant Grainger, with 5 men, kept off a strong party of Boers all night. Sergeant Major M C Jameson, surprised by enemy, behaved with great steadiness, and extricated his patrol; mentioned in AO Corporal J R Shipley, in command of 7 men, was heavily attacked by enemy, repulsed them, and, though severely wounded, remained in charge.
8th August 1901.—Captain A W Stockett, 1st Battalion, for continuous good work in command of armoured train, and before that of corps of cyclists, and especially at Baatman's Siding, when he was largely instrumental in capture of De Wet's convoy.
8th March 1902.—1st Batallion.—Private Creak, promoted corporal; distinguished conduct defence of post at Brakpan, 5th February 1902, when 5 men repulsed 49 Boers. 3rd Battalion —Lieutenant W D Oswald, for rescue of native scout, January 31, enemy being close to him and pursuing for some miles. Corporal E C Baker, promoted Sergeant, Privates Murphy, J M'Arthy, J M'Knight, on 30th January, formed a lying-out post between two blockhouses in Vereeniging attacked by 50 Boers, 2 wounded, refused to surrender, and eventually drove enemy off. 4th Battalion —Private W Lowes, at Schoeman's Drift, December 30, returned under close fire to rescue a wounded comrade. Army promotion: To be Honorary Captain, Quartermaster and Honourable Lieutenant G Taylor, RE, Adjutant Railway Pioneer Regiment.
23rd June 1902.—Captains W Roe, A E Page, Lieutenant J C Rouse, Regimental Sergeant Major Reid, RE; Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant D R Stuart, Sergeant E P Simmons, H A Lawrence, Sergeant G Salter, RE; Private H A Lawrence.
See the individual attestation papers.
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