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Scottish Yeomanry in South Africa 1900 - 1901
Chapter VI

HUNTER had now concentrated a large force of all arms at 'Bethlehem, complete with stores and ammunition. On Friday, 20th July, he sent Bruce Hamilton in a southeasterly direction to clear his flanks there. This force consisted of one battery Field Artillery with one "porn-porn," the Cameron Highlanders, and the 7th and 8th Mounted Infantry, with the 17th and 18th Yeomanry attached to the former corps. We were on the right flank, supported by the 17th Company, and our objective was a sugar-loaf hill called Spitz Kop, about eight miles from Bethlehem.

As soon as we left that town we entered on a more mountainous part of the country than any we had yet traversed. Leading our horses down a steep hillside, we heard the rattle of rifle fire on our left, and knew that the Mounted Infantry were engaged there. We rode up a rise in front, and halted there for some time. Advancing again, we were half-way down the next slope, and had halted, when a shot or two came among us, evidently from our left front.

Immediately afterwards a heavy fire was opened on us from that quarter. We got the order "Files about," and were moving back over the ridge when a fresh order came, "Files about," followed by "Gallop." We galloped to some tune down hill, through a very hot but inaccurate fire. We were very widely extended, and got to cover in the hollow. Here we dismounted and advanced on foot to the ridge, where we came under a heavy fire. The first section, under Lieutenant Connal, was ordered to clear some kraals on the right front. They mounted, and were rushed off before half the men had been gathered together, so keen were we in those days to be at our work. The time gained by this excessive haste was very poor value for the strength lost in men. They rode to within a short distance of the kraals, and had to dismount in pretty open ground. It was here that we met with our first casualty. One man was hit severely, and three horses were killed. The artillery came into action and cleared the way for another advance. We ran back for our horses, and pursued the now retiring enemy. At the end of a bluff we made our next halt, and got in our fire with some effect. The enemy were streaming across the plain below, and we have reason to believe that we emptied some saddles. Again the guns came up, and again we advanced—this time more to our left. The horses were left at the foot of the hill, and we advanced along the top, meeting with little opposition. Some of our men caught sight of a farm nestling at the foot of the hill, and made for it helter-skelter. The owner of the farm expressed great delight on our arrival, shouting out, "Hurrah! de English have come." His joy was short-lived, however, as his place was ransacked and cleared of everything eatable, as well as of knives, forks, etc. One man went in wearing a helmet and emerged in a slouch hat.

The enemy fired a few long-range shots at us from the opposite hill without doing any damage, and we came back to our horses feeling much elated at our success —that success that was to follow us through all our operations. We got back to camp at night tired but happy, for had we not at last been under fire, and proved to our own satisfaction that we knew what to do and could do it?

Next morning we were at it again. Shortly after leaving camp, we, on the right flank, were engaged. We drove in the outlying groups of enemy towards a high kopje, and then drew off when the Cameron Highlanders came up. They laid themselves round the hill, every ant-hill sheltering little groups of three or four men. One man got behind a large paling stob and stood there, not daring to move. The artillery shelled the face of the hill with great effect, shell after shell bursting right on the top, searching all the recesses so dear to the Boer, and sending little groups of the enemy running and climbing from cover to cover. Gradually our fire did its work, and the opposition grew weaker and weaker. Then the Camerons threw forward their right flank, and enveloped half the hill with their fire. We were ordered to move to protect the left flank. Here we met with a feeble fire from some detached parties of the enemy, who were watching our flanks and acting as feelers— that is, if they found us taken unawares they would be reinforced with speed, and so throw themselves on our weak spot. Towards evening we were withdrawn, and made camp again in the dark. The Highlanders lost four killed and seventeen wounded this day.

Sunday saw us at work again. This time we were supporting the guns on their left. The guns took up position on a long plateau in advance of the position of the day before. We came under a heavy fire as soon as we appeared in sight, and each man was marked where he got down, and had a hail of lead round him at once. We could hear the Maxim gun of the Mounted Infantry rattling away in a kloof on our right, replied to by a very heavy Mauser fire, making the hills echo again and again, so doubling the din. Then we saw a faint line appear on the far skyline, about five miles away, which we made out to be a gun drawn by bullocks. Then the team disappeared, and the gun opened fire. About four rounds were enough for our gunners, who found themselves outranged by two thousand yards, and had no choice but to limber up and take cover as fast as possible. Then the bullocks reappeared, and the Creusot gun—for so it turned out to be—having achieved its purpose, was removed. Again our gunners opened fire, and again the faint line of bullocks came in sight. Finally our guns took up a new position secure from the big gun's attentions, and went on with their work. We were fully occupied with our friend the enemy, who had watched us as we advanced, and from his good cover got steady aim at our line. The only indication we had of his whereabouts was an occasional puff of smoke from the muzzle of a Martini firing black powder. For a time there would be almost perfect peace, and someone would rise up and look about. He would be rewarded by a volley, which sent him under cover like a rabbit into its hole. Then for a few minutes the whole line would get attention, returning its fire at the most likely places. As before, we were recalled at dark, having had three men hit, all of them slightly. We had a tremendous climb down a steep hillside to camp, and had hardly got in when a terrible wind-storm arose. Those who were wise put up tents as quickly as possible, and this had hardly been done when a terrific deluge of rain came down, flooding everything. Tents were blown down, horses pulled their pegs and made for shelter, and, to crown all, the rain changed into snow—thick, persistent snow, lying in the morning, in spite of the rain, three or four inches deep. When daylight came there was hardly a horse to be seen. The poor creatures had huddled together behind the shelter of waggons, bushes, and any cover to keep Out the perishing cold. Saddles were buried in the snow, and everyone was hunting up and down looking for his belongings. Some of the horses had dashed into tents and brought them down, the occupants lying where the tent fell, under cover of the heaped-up canvas. We were lucky to have them at all, as many of the Camerons had no cover of any sort, and, as the snow thawed, were sleeping, in some cases, in three or four inches of water.

That morning, the 23rd, we got orders to move across to Retief's Nek, about eight miles off, where Hunter had moved with the remainder of his force from Bethlehem. Lieutenant Marshall was sent with despatches to General Hunter, accompanied by one man and two guides. His mission was considered rather a dangerous one by General Bruce Hamilton, who did not know that the ground between himself and Hunter was clear. The despatch party was rewarded by a magnificent panoramic view of the battle, From the hill where the General and his staff were stationed the whole situation could be seen at a glance. Below, like big hock bottles, were two "cow" guns shelling a trench stretching across the Nek from side to side. On the right the Sussex Regiment was attacking; on the left the Highland Light Infantry. Further to the left the Black Watch was attempting, with the assistance of a battery of artillery, to turn the right flank. This last attack was successful, the Black Watch carrying their position at dusk with the bayonet. We did not reach Retief's Nek till dark, and saw the red flash of the guns still shelling the trenches.

We camped near Boshof's Farm that night, and next morning were sent to support Lovat's Scouts on the enemy's right flank, whither it was expected the Boers would retire. On our way out we passed a hill taken the night before, and now held by a picket of the Black Watch. They were being shelled, and were having a lively time. About mid-day we heard a terrible fire on our right. The Black Watch were covering with magazine rifle fire a charge by the Seaforths, directed against the Boers holding the top of a bridle path by which the main body was escaping. We were brought round from our position on the left and sent down the bridle path in pursuit. It must have been a splendid bit of work that enabled the Boers to escape down this one at a time, as it was the most precipitous path we ever came across. How the last few men were abl& to lead their horses down in the face of the fire from above is hardly credible. And yet one hears accusations of cowardice against the Boers! Clements and Rundle having forced Slabbert's Nek, which with Retiel's forms a "V" with the apex in the Brandwater basin, the Boers were in full retreat. For our share in these operations we are entitled to the Wittebergen clasp.

The following day we were moved into the Nek and pitched our tents there. Thursday we spent in camp, and on the 27th marched to rejoin the Highland Brigade. On the 28th we reached Naauwpoort Nek, and joined Macdonald. On the 29th we heard rumours of a big surrender. On the 31st Macdonald inspected the Yeomanry under his command, forming a brigade under Burn, and gave us a lecture on the evils of looting as practised by the Yeomanry. Macdonald's language was remarkable more for force than refinement. The next day we marched towards Fouriesberg, and on 2nd August joined Bruce Hamilton's brigade near that place. Some of our men were left under a sergeant to get remounts from the surplus surrendered Boer ponies. They had a splendid view of the prisoners as they came in with their waggons, almost every man riding, one horse and leading another. Hunter had promised to allow them to ride to the nearest point on the railway, so we got their second and poorer horses. The men were a motley crew. Old, white-haired men to young boys of fifteen all were there, dressed in the quaintest of costumes. Felt hats, white duck trousers, corduroys, blue dungarees, and umbrellas were noticeable features of the procession. Many of those who got horses had to ride them bareback to camp, now fifteen miles off, and they were rather sorry for themselves, as the ponies were in poor condition, and their backs somewhat sharp. Macdonald's force was now within eight miles of Harrismith.

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