By Captain CB Henderson
Over 100 years ago, the 1st Battalion was serving in South Africa throughout the course of the Boer War. In doing so, the Regiment gained the battle honour “South Africa” for the fourth time, a feature unique in the British Army.
The Regimental Museum displays a number of interesting items from the Boer War. A greater understanding of the campaign, however, comes from the wealth of written material such as diaries and letters from the front and newspaper cuttings. These provide fascinating first-hand accounts of engagements, life and conditions throughout the war.
The 1st Battalion was despatched to South Africa in autumn 1899, after the deterioration in relations between Britain and the self-governing Boer states of Orange Free State and Transvaal had led to the Boer invasion of Natal in October 1899. Initial large scale engagements in the opening phases of the war were to prove a bitter and rude awakening to the British. The British Army was poorly prepared, tactically and strategically, for warfare against an intelligent enemy, who was skilled at conducting mobile operations on his own ground and equipped with modern weaponry. The Boers’ prowess with accurate long-range rifle fire was a feature of the campaign. On display in the Museum is a Boer Mauser rifle, typical of the war.
Heavy casualties were sustained by the 1st Battalion at the battles of Modder River and Magersfontein (both near Kimberley, then under siege by the Boers). The Museum has the side drum of Lance Corporal Thomas Kennedy, which was struck by a Boer explosive bullet during the battle of Modder River, on 28th November 1899. The drum has a two inch hole in the side. Miraculously, Lance Corporal Kennedy escaped unharmed.
At Modder River, the Battalion was pinned down in the open for an entire day. Private W Griffiths in a letter to his mother described it as:
“… 13 hours, and under a very hot sun, and we never had a bite or drink of water till 9 o’clock, and all we had then was bully beef and biscuits. All our legs are burnt with the sun; all the skin is coming off, and we are nearly all attending hospital.”
A crossing of the river was forced by the Battalion, but avoiding set piece battle the Boers, frustratingly, melted away under the cover of darkness.
Thirteen days later, the 1st Battalion took part in the Highland Brigade’s night march and attack on Magersfontein Hill. Without a reconnaissance being carried out, the Battalion emerged 400 yards short of the Boer trenches (photographs of the trench positions are in the Museum) and suffered heavy casualties in the enemy’s carefully planned killing zone. Corporal T Smith writing to his wife said:
“Just before daybreak we halted, and had not waited very long before the Boers opened a very heavy fire on us. Then occurred a scene I shall never efface from my memory. By the mistake of someone, we had been led right up to the enemy’s position, in close formation. It was here that most of the men fell, among them being our commanding officer, the captain of my company, and the lieutenant. I can never tell how I was not struck down; it seemed a miracle.”
Magersfontein saw acts of bravery by Corporal Jimmy Mackay, in the face of intense enemy fire, striking up the Regimental March to rally the troops and prevent a rout and by Lieutenant Neilson who led a group of men and succeeded in taking one of the Boer positions. The Battalion, however, was forced to withdraw under the cover of artillery.
The Christmas of 1899 was not a comfortable one. In a letter to his sister, 15 year old drummer boy Tom Clayton of D Company complained in true soldierly fashion:
“This is the worst Christmas Day I have spent. We got no pudding or anything else extra; it is the same as any other day. We are waiting for the Queen’s chocolate. People are offering £5 for the box without the chocolate. If I am spared to get mine I will send it home to mother. We are also waiting for the pudding the people in England are sending to us.”
On display in the Museum is one of the “Queen’s chocolate boxes” sent to the troops in South Africa, still with the original chocolate inside, although perhaps somewhat past the “best before” date.
The last large scale encounter was at Paardeberg on 18th February 1900, where the Battalion, escorting the guns and firing on the Boer positions, formed part of 4 British Brigades which this time successfully defeated a force of 5,000 Boers. Thereafter, the campaign became one of attrition against the Boers who were using guerrilla tactics and engagements were smaller in scale.
The diary of 2nd Lieutenant George Sceales provides a meticulous account of the entire campaign, covering his time in South Africa from 1899 until the conclusion of the war in 1902. His entry for Wednesday 7th March 1900, entitled “Battle of Poplar Grove”, is typical of the many smaller engagements which took place:
“Started at 5am, B Company sent along river bank to search bushes, C and D Companies came in front later and E Company behind. Boers fired some shells and a few sniping shots. Advanced about 3pm. General Boer retreat. Find strong entrenchments and the coffee still hot in their camp.”
For the next two years the Battalion, reinforced by the Volunteer Battalions, adjusted to the more fluid operations and its role involved mobile columns in pursuit of Boer commandos, guards for key strategic passes and blockhouses, escorts for supply columns, and garrisons. The Battalion marched many miles over the veldt, often by night, up to 20 miles a day for several days at a time.
The troops could succumb to tropical diseases, particularly malaria, as much as enemy action. Lieutenant Sceales records a more mundane, but still debilitating, experience:
“Monday 18th March 1901. Having had very bad toothache for 11 days, and finding morphia, phenacitine etc no good, I dashed in to MacHoll and had what I thought to be the tooth out, he being unable to tell. Luckily it turned out to be the right one.”
Lieutenant Sceales’ diary shows that during the two year campaign time was found for sports of all kind including football, cricket, hockey and swimming. Fishing was tried, albeit unsuccessfully:
“Saturday 27th April 1901. Tried to blow up some fish in the river with Dynamite, but the fuse failed.”
The Boer resistance was finally worn down by a combination of the British overwhelming number of troops, firepower, mobility and restriction of the Boers’ movement. The campaign had cost the lives of 7 officers and 136 other ranks by the time hostilities came to an end in June 1902, but it was not until February 1903 that the Argylls finally left for home.