2 KSLI in the South African War 1899-1902.
The KING'S SHROPSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY in South Africa 1899-1902.
The 2nd Battalion of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry served right through the "Boer War" of 1899-1902 and particularly distinguished themselves at the battle of Paardeberg in February 1900.
On Lord Roberts' arrival at Modder River to take command of the South African Field Force for an advance on the Boer centres of Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria, the KSLI joined the 2nd Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, 1st Gordon Highlanders and the Canadian Regiment in the 19th Brigade under Major General Horace Smith-Dorrien. This brigade was, in turn, part of the IXth Division under General Sir H. E. Colvile.
Officers of 2 KSLI in December 1899
The KSLI was part of the force which took part in the general advance from Modder River to Bloemfontein, capital of the Boer republic of the Orange Free State. General Colvile's 'Work of the IXth Division' has an account of the doings of the division from its formation on 11th February 1900 till the 31st March, the day of the famous action at Sannah's Post (or Koorn Spruit) and according to Lord Roberts' dispatches, the first marches of the IXth Division were: 13th February to Ramdam; on 14th to Waterval Drift; on 15th, Waterval to Wegdraai; on 16th, evening, to Klip Kraal; by the 18th they drawn up before the Boer positions at Paardeberg, where the first major victory for Roberts’ force would be won and an entire Boer army under General Piet Cronje eventually surrendered.
On the morning of the 18th February 1900, Colvile found that the Boers were in and about the river-bed on his left front, their main camp or laager being on the north bank, and that on his own right front were the VIth Division under Kelly-Kenny, which had been in the front of the advance from Modder River. Before six o'clock Colvile had resolved to take the greater part of his division to the north bank, but the river was found to be too high at that particular time. About six o'clock he ordered Macdonald to clear some scrub near the river, but shortly afterwards Lord Kitchener requested that the IXth Division should reinforce Kelly-Kenny. Macdonald at once marched to the right, then turning to the left, was soon in action. The Boers continued to push through the scrub and down the river in strength. Colvile then, with Lord Kitchener's approval, gave his attention to this part of the field, the west and north-west portion of the Boer perimeter. By nine o'clock the Royal Engineers had made the passage of the river possible, and the 19th Brigade and 82nd Battery were across by 10. 15 a.m. and the flanking movement well developed.
Smith-Dorrien sent the Canadians to work up the river-bank; their right forming the pivot of the movement, their left joining the right of the Shropshires, whose left in turn touched the right of the Gordons. The latter were accompanied by the 82nd Battery, and their objective was a knoll commanding the scrub at the river's bend. This knoll - Gun Hill - was occupied by the Shropshires soon after eleven, the Gordons swinging round to prolong the line to the left, and by four o'clock Smith-Dorrien was well round two sides of the scrub. The Canadians having cleared the north bank for some distance, three and a half companies of the Seaforths and two of the Black Watch crossed to the north side and then pushed on to within 200 yards of the Boer trenches. While Smith-Dorrien (and 2 KSLI) was still fighting round the scrub, higher up rushes were made at it from time to time but without result.
2 KSLI in action at Paardeberg, February 1900
On the morning of the 19th Smith-Dorrien found that the scrub which had been so tenaciously held on the previous day had been evacuated, and he was able to push forward a considerable distance. From the 19th to the 27th he worked closer and closer to the Boer position. On the night of the 21st the Shropshires made what General Colvile calls a "fine advance" to within 550 yards of the Boer trenches. The following night they stove to shorten the distance but failed, and the spade had now to be relied on. It is worth while quoting the last act from the general's account. After explaining that he had come to be of opinion that an entirely new trench on our side had to be started: "It seemed to me that if we could once gain the ground clear of the trees we should have the laager at our mercy. I knew Lord Roberts was very averse to trying an assault, so got hold of his chief engineer, and went through the trenches again with him, with the result that he, too, thought that no further good could be done with the present trench. Fortified with this expert opinion, I went to Lord Roberts, explained the situation, and got his leave to try an advance that night.
"It was the turn of the Canadians to occupy the trench, and therefore obviously theirs to make the assault. After talking over the details with Smith-Dorrien, it was settled that the assaulting party was to consist of half a battalion of that regiment. The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry were ordered creep forward from the trench in the darkness till the enemy opened fire, and then to begin digging as hard as they could. The Gordons were to support them in the advanced trench, and in another, a couple of hundred yards down-stream, while the rest of the 19th Brigade, extended to the left, was to open fire, so as to convey the idea of an attack in force and prevent the Boers concentrating all their strength on to the little assaulting party.
At 2.30 on the morning of the 27th February the party, under command of Lieut.-Colonel Buchan, Royal Canadians, left the trench, moving steadily forward, shoulder to shoulder, feeling their way through the bushes, and keeping touch by the right. At 2.55 they were met by a terrific fire from a Boer trench, which later measurement proved to be only 60 yards in front of them. The right companies … got cover under a little fold of the ground by falling back about 20 yards; but the slight undulation which favoured them brought the company on the left to the level of the Boer fire, which, owing to the darkness, was rather high. The result was that before they could gain comparative shelter, some 30 yards back, their commanding officer, Major Pelletier, was wounded, and they had suffered rather severely. The trenching-party then set to work about 10 yards in rear of the front rank, which lay in the open for nearly two hours at 80 yards from the enemy's trenches, keeping up so hot a fire at the flashes from the Boer lines that firing from the other side grew wild."
When Cronje saw the new trench completed such a short distance from and enfilading some of his own, he apparently decided that further resistance was useless, and at dawn surrendered.
The 19th Brigade, hastily thrown together, had done one of the most telling bits of work in the whole war.
During the battle of Paardeberg in February 1900, the Shropshire Light Infantry had done excellent work. On the night of the 21st they had made, what General Colvile called "a fine advance to within 550 yards of the Boer trenches" and by spade-work, sapping towards the Boer lines, this distance was subsequently diminished. At Paardeberg the battalion suffered about 50 casualties. In Lord Roberts' despatch of 31st March 1900, Colonel Spens, 1 other officer, and 5 non-commissioned officers and men gained a “mention”.
Paardeberg after the battle.
The army’s advance continued. At Poplar Grove on 7th March, Colvile's division, with Mounted Infantry and three naval guns, had charge of the area of the action which lay on the left of the main advance and to the north of the Modder. The Highland Brigade was on the right, next to the river, the Canadians for a time working with them; while farther to the left Smith-Dorrien's other three battalions, including 2 KSLI, moved round the north side of a hill (Leuwkop), the extreme left being protected by mounted infantry. The fighting was not severe, the Boers bolting and leaving one Krupp gun on the kop, which the Shropshires secured.
At the battle of Driefontein on the 10th the IXth Division only came up at the finish. On the 13th Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, was occupied and shortly afterwards a column under General Broadwood was sent east towards Ladybrand. Pressed by a superior force, he was compelled to retire towards Sannah's Post, where a disastrous engagement was to take place on 31st March. On 30th March Lord Roberts ordered Colvile to march at dawn next morning to Broadwood's assistance. The IXth Division marched at 5.30 on the 31st and at Springfield Colvile heard that Broadwood was in serious trouble but by the time that he himself reconnoitred the area, it was all over and Broadwood’s column had been severely mauled and several guns of “Q” Battery, RHA, captured. Since his men were already exhausted after a 22 mile march to the spot, Colvile decided that a pursuit was impossible and moved to seize Waterval Drift on the Modder River.
On 3rd April, Colvile’s IX Division was ordered towards Leeuwkop, 18 miles south-east of Bloemfontien, believing a Boer force to be operating in the area. The division marched on 4th but found no enemy forces nearby. The IX Division was broken up shortly afterwards and the 19th Brigade joined other units under command of Sir Ian Hamilton.
An advanced piquet on the veldt.
In the northern advance, which began at the end of April, the 19th Brigade served on the right flank and in Hamilton’s numerous actions the Shropshire Light Infantry rendered excellent service. On 25th April, Hamilton’s force moved eastwards towards Thabanchu and met serious opposition at Israel’s Poort, where the Boers occupied a strong horse-shoe shaped position. However, Hamilton’s outflanking movements forced the Boers to abandon their defences by evening and Thabanchu was occupied.
On 28th April, Hamilton was ordered to move northwards with the army of the centre and on 30th April, the 19th Brigade advanced towards Houtnek, a horse-shoe shaped position strongly held by the Boers. Their weaker right flank on Thoba Mountain was attacked by the 19th Brigade, including the KSLI, who later made a feint attack on the enemy’s left. The rest of the Houtnek position was seized on 1st May, 2 KSLI actually taking and holding the pass (nek) itself, though with some loss. An attempt to reinforce the defences having failed, the Boers again abandoned their positions and withdrew. In his account of the work of Hamilton's force, which he accompanied, Winston Churchill, describing the battle of Thoba Mountain says: "Parties of the Gordons and Canadians succeeded in gaining possession of the two peaks of Thoba Mountain. Besides this, half a company of the Shropshires under Colour Sergeant Sconse managed to seize the nek between them, and though subjected to a severe crossfire, which caused in this small party ten casualties out of forty, maintained themselves stubbornly for four hours. The points which dominate the flat top of the mountain were thus gained."
On 3rd May, Hamilton’s column reached Jacobsrust and near that town a sharp action was fought on the 4th but once again the Boers were outflanked and eventually withdrew; Ventersburg was occupied the same evening. Hamilton's army then moved inwards, drawing close to the centre at Kroonstad on the 12th. On the 15th they moved off again, occupying Lindley on the 18th. On the 20th the march was recommenced and a rear- or flank-guard action was fought in which a company of mounted infantry suffered heavily. On the 22nd Heilbron was taken and a number of waggons captured by General Broadwood.
Lord Roberts, judging that an attempt would be made to hold the difficult country to the south and south-west of Johannesburg, ordered Hamilton to cross the centre and become the army of the left flank. On the 24th this movement was accomplished and two days later Hamilton crossed the Vaal. On the 27th he gained touch with the forces of General Sir John French, who had been out far out on the west or left front. On the 29th, within sight of the goldmine chimneys of the Rand, was fought the fierce battle of Doornkop or Florida. Both the 19th and 21st Brigades, acting with Smith-Dorrien, did excellent work. The position was not one which could be turned and French had not been able to get round. Besides, the lack of provisions made it a necessity that not a day should be lost, so a simple frontal attack had to be tried. The troops rose to the occasion, and a magnificent success was scored. A failure would probably have encouraged the enemy to hold on to Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, more tenaciously than they did.
The British occupation of Pretoria.
Once Pretoria, the capital of the South African republic or Transvaal, had been occupied the 19th Brigade under Smith-Dorrien was taken from Ian Hamilton’s command, and with their brigadier was employed on the line between the Vaal and the capital. The KSLI guarded the railway for some distance south of the capital, their headquarters then being at Rhenoster in the Orange River Colony. On l0th July Smith-Dorrien was ordered send the Shropshire Light Infantry and the 1st Gordons by rail to collect supplies in the Krugersdorp district; but on the 11th he found himself opposed by a very strong force of the enemy and he returned to Krugersdorp, around which the KSLI was based for minor operations which extended over several weeks.
On 16th July the Shropshire Light Infantry garrisoned various outlying posts which were very heavily attacked, but without success. On 30th July the battalion lost 13 men killed and 38 wounded through a train being derailed by the Boers on the line between Krugersdorp and Klerksdorp. The dead in this incident, and other regimental casualties in the war, are named on the fine Boer War memorial on St. Chad’s Terrace in Shrewsbury.
NCOs of 2 KSLI at Middelburg in the Transvaal.
In a telegraphic despatch dated 13th August 1900 Lord Roberts referred to Smith-Dorrien’s report that the 2nd Shropshire Light Infantry had marched forty-three miles in thirty-two hours and the City Imperial Volunteers (CIV) thirty miles in seventeen hours, in the hope of being able to prevent the Boer leader Christian De Wet from crossing the Krugersdorp - Potchefstroom Railway. The battalion took part in the pursuit of De Wet's forces to the Megaliesberg hills and in the relief of Colonel Hore at Eland's River.
In August 1900 Lord Roberts moved a great part of his army along the Delagoa Railway in preparation for his final advance to Koomati Poort. The Shropshire Light Infantry were taken to Belfast and saw some fighting in that neighbourhood on several occasions in the latter part of August. On 6th September 1900 the battalion joined General French at Carolina and under him marched to Barberton, where they were stationed for three weeks. In October the battalion came back to Belfast, and were again put under Smith-Dorrien, who on 1st November started out with two small columns to attack the enemy at Witkloof. On account of a very severe night, with a temperature close on freezing and torrents of rain which numbed the men and horses, the general decided to retire without attacking, and during the retirement had to fight a steady rear-guard action. On the 6th he tried again and had severe fighting, the casualties being 6 killed and 20 wounded, "mostly of the Shropshire Light Infantry, whose conduct was much praised." On the following day the fighting was still heavier, the enemy being strongly reinforced.
In Lord Roberts' final despatch 12 officers and 18 non-commissioned officers and men of the battalion were mentioned. Roberts was replaced by Lord Kitchener as Commander in Chief in South Africa.
The battalion was still part of the garrison of Belfast when its outposts were heavily attacked on the night of 7th January 1901 and on that occasion 2 KSLI suffered about 20 casualties, especially at Colliery Hill.
For the remainder of the campaign in 1901-02 they were chiefly employed in the Eastern Transvaal, on tedious escort duty, manning the line of block-houses or in patrol work. The headquarters were generally at Belfast or Carolina and half of the battalion was almost always out on column work. Many long and tiring treks were done under Colonels Williams, Park, and Fortescue, whose columns were constantly engaged in generally small-scale encounters with a very mobile and elusive foe.
A typical "blockhouse" : one of many built to try to control the movement of Boer forces.
In the second phase of the war 4 officers and 2 men gained mention in despatches by Lord Kitchener for excellent work, and in his final despatch he added the names of 3 officers and 4 non-commissioned officers and men.