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The Story of the Royal Scots
Chapter XVII - The South African War, 1899-1902


Faithful Reservists—Paardeplatz—Sergeant Robertson and Major Twyford—Lieut. C. L. Price at Bermondsey— Casualties and Honours.

In the late summer of 1899 the long negotiations with the two South African Republics culminated in war. On August 21 the first battalion had received confidential orders to hold themselves in readiness to proceed to South Africa in the event of hostilities, the second battalion being in India. October 9 was the first day of mobilization. The mounted infantry section left headquarters the next day for Aldershot and South Africa, and by the 19th the last batch of reservists arrived at headquarters, then at Holywood Barracks, Belfast. On the 24th the battalion was inspected by Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, and by the 6th of November the battalion had embarked under the command of Lieut.-Col. E. P. Morgan-Payler. Of the total strength of one thousand and thirty-nine, over seven hundred were ^reservists. When the late George Wyndham, then Under-Secretary of State for War, was asked a question in the House of Commons with regard to the muster of reservists, he was able to reply: “The Royal Scots is the only regiment in which every reservist is accounted for.” This was a distinction of which the regiment had every right to be proud. On arriving at East London, the battalion joined the 3rd Division under General Gatacre, but had no part in the disaster at Stormberg. They were in the actions of the Loperberg at the beginning of January 1900, and at Bird’s River in February, when two privates were wounded and Drummer Davies displayed conspicuous courage and coolness, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. The affair at Penhoek on February 19 was unimportant; but “B,” “D,” and “E " Companies did well at Labuschagnes Nek on March 4. On March 23 the first Volunteer Service Company joined, and a draft of a hundred reservists followed four days later. The casualties in the action before Dewetsdorp in April were trifling, but enteric had begun to take its toll. By the end of August the battalion was with General Smith-Dorrien's brigade in General Ian Hamilton’s division of the main army under Lord Roberts, and Major Douglas was in command. At the beginning of September a force left Belfast to go to the assistance of Buller’s army, and by midnight of the 5th reached the summit of Zwaggershoek Pass. For a time The Royal Scots were the most advanced unit of the British Army. At the battle of Paardeplatz, which was the last stand of Botha’s main army, Sir Ian Hamilton's division was on the right, and Buller’s on the left. Smith-Dorrien’s brigade was composed of The Royal Scots on the right and The Royal Irish on the left, with the Gordons in the second line. The advance was difficult over broken country. At about a mile from the enemy’s sangars the battalion came to a ravine, thickly wooded at the bottom and divided by a swift river. The rapidity with which they crossed these formidable barriers drew from Sir Redvers Buller the praise, “ By Jove, those Royal Scots are devils to go ! ” It was only owing to the swift attack of The Royals that they escaped casualties from the Boer fire, and the enemy’s line gave way. If the rest of September showed little fighting there was no lack of arduous marching through dense bush, and through mountainous and waterless desert. Rations were scanty, but the indomitable spirit of all ranks made light of the difficulties. Between February 9 and October 30, 1900, the battalion had marched two thousand three hundred and ninety-six miles, and while it was guarding the railway from January 18 to April 7, 1901, the Boers did not succeed in destroying any part of the line.

Two incidents which occurred in the spring of this year showed the spirit of The Royals.

On March 23 Sergeant G. Robertson was in command of a party of about twenty men of various corps as escort to a train from Pretoria. On nearing Pan (E. Transvaal), the train was stopped by the Boers blowing up the line, and was attacked in force; the enemy were concealed a few yards away in a trench. The escort, under Sergeant Robertson’s orders, at once opened fire; the Boers called upon him to surrender, but he shouted out, “No surrender,” and was immediately shot through the head.

On April 10 the first battalion moved off to Machadodorp, and on the 4th Major Twyford, who was on his way to join it, was attacked in the Badfontein Valley by Jan de Beers’ commando while escorted by seven cavalrymen. After a gallant fight from a ruined farmhouse, the Boers closed on them in overwhelming forces and called upon Major Twyford to surrender. He refused to do so, and continued to fire his rifle until he was shot down and killed.

On April 14 Zwaggershoek was seized once more, this time by “H” Company under Lieut. C. Lemprere Price, supported by three squadrons of Hussars. Two days later there was a smart little engagement with a Boer commando under General Muller, in which The Royals and the Hussars came off best.

On May 16 they were engaged in the action at Bermondsey, which may be recounted in some detail because of the notable gallantry displayed by Lieut. Price:

"The field guns came into action at 1,600 yards, whilst the machine gun of the battalion was brought to a position where it could enfilade the line of advanced rocks; it was chiefly due to the machine gun that the enemy left his advanced position. The two companies established themselves in a good fire position at 1,400 yards, with gully between them and the enemy. Second Lieutenant Dalmahoy was sent with ’E' Company to turn the Boer right. In spite of the difficult ground, he effected this in a very able, gallant way, and the Boers hastily retired. Lieutenant Dalmahoy, who had been joined by Captain and Adjutant Moir, on his own initiative, pushed on after the retreating Boers, and the whole column, which had now been reinforced by the pom pom and a half-battalion of the King's Royal Rifles, pressed forward. The men of "E' Company displayed great gallantry by the cool way in which they advanced through the rocks under a brisk fire. They followed along a narrow ridge, which led to another kopje, Boschoek, the two being connected by a Nek. The ground on this Nek was flat and quite open, either side was precipitous. The firing line lay down in the open just short of the Nek, and about 420 yards from the enemy. They had two entrenching ’ implements ' amongst them, and, by passing these to each other, each man managed to scrape a small mound in front of him. The pom pom came into action at 1,600 yards, the field guns at 2,000 yards, and the Boers retired into the Komati Valley. Captain Moir was wounded in four places, Second Lieutenant Dalmahoy in two, Private Sheddon was killed, and Private McMillan was wounded. Lieutenant Price, Lance-Corporals McGill, McMillan and Fox, and Private Adams showed conspicuous courage, and risked their lives to save others. Corporal Paul, who, after the Officers were wounded, showed coolness and judgment in command of the firing line, was promoted Sergeant by Lord Kitchener. Lieutenant Price was recommended for the ' Victoria Cross,’ the other two Officers and the Lance-Corporals were mentioned in dispatches. Amongst the Boer losses were a Field Cornet, and two Foremen killed. Our total casualties were one private killed, two Officers and six men wounded. The following telegram was received from Sir Bindon Blood’s Chief Staff-Officer:

"The Major-General congratulates you on your success.”

On June 12 the battalion took part in the very arduous pursuit of a large detachment of Boers at Somerset Ridge, and was also engaged a fortnight later in the attack at Koedoeshoek. These operations concluded with the arrival of the column at Machadodorp on July 1 after a successful drive which brought high praise from the Brigadier-General. After a series of minor operations The Royal Scots found themselves again in action in the neighbourhood of Paardeplatz, where they had fought in 1900, and on April 5, a drummer and five privates of the Volunteer Service Company frustrated by their gallantry and initiative an attack by Jack Hindon’s commando. So pleased was Lord Kitchener with their conduct that five of them were promoted corporals.

In the light of our knowledge of what The Royal Scots have done and are doing in a world-campaign, the incidents of the South African War may seem insignificant. The total lives lost in the war were five officers, eighteen non-commissioned officers, and seventy privates. The majority of these were the victims of enteric and other diseases, and those who fell on the stricken field make quite a short list. It would be unjust, however, on that account to minimize the value of the services rendered by the battalion. It is well to remember the immense difficulties of supply and the hardship of semi-starvation which were often the lot of our soldiers on the veldt for weeks together. The climatic conditions were often terrible, nor were the troops in their thin khaki equipped to resist them. One may mention, for example, that on June 2, 1901, the tea froze in the cups at breakfast, twenty-six oxen were frozen to death, and two men on picket duty were picked up unconscious. A truer estimate of the battalion’s services is to be drawn from the list of honours which the regiment won. Officers and men received fifty-nine mentions in dispatches; fifteen officers received the D.S.O., and fifteen N.C.O.’s and men got the D.C.M. For some unknown reason Lord Kitchener’s recommendation of Lieut. C. Lempriere Price for the V.C. was ignored by the War Office, to the great disappointment of the regiment, but he received the D.S.O.

This chapter cannot be closed without some reference to the services of The Royal Scots who served with the first section of the mounted infantry. The officer commanding the Scottish company wrote: “ Throughout the war, The Royal Scots Section has invariably behaved with great gallantry in action.” The second and third companies and the fourth half-company of M.I. also did admirably. Although it would be wearisome to detail the many successful night attacks and the great drives in which they took part, when hundreds of prisoners and thousands of head of cattle were captured, it was by incessant effort in untheatrical work of this kind that the most tiresome campaign in British history was eventually brought to an end. Reference is made in Chapter XVIII to the South African services of the Militia battalion. Perhaps the most impressive fact to be recorded of a war in which British surrenders were all too frequent is that there was not a single case of surrender of a party of The Royal Scots. Indeed, the stories of the deaths of Sergeant Robertson and Major Twyford show that the spirit of Marlborough’s Royals marched with their successors who fought under the Southern Cross.

From the close of the Boer War until the Great War began in 1914, the history of the regiment is no more than a record of movements from home to India, of inspections and compliments, of competitions and sports, of Guards of Honour mounted at Royal visits— in a word, of the routine of peace. These things are all wheels in the machinery of efficiency, but they do not make illuminating reading, and may be passed over. During these twelve years the only shots fired in anger were at Bombay, where the second battalion was employed in quelling native riots in 1908.

Sir E. A. Stuart was succeeded in the Colonelcy by Lieut.-General George Hay Moncrieff in 1903.

With the South African war, khaki, which had hitherto been worn only in India, became the active service uniform. With the latest development of military uniform every one is familiar. It represents the final removal of everything decorative and the suppression of all but the slightest indications of difference in rank.


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