General Sir Reginald S May – Boer War

I was fortunate enough to arrive at Chieveley 4 days before we started just as the Regiments were returning from Spion Kop.We left Chieveley early on Wednesday Feb 14th, the Fusilier Brigade leading and having, either that day or any other the slightest idea where we were going or what we  going to do.

Boer War Map3

However advancing towards Hussar Hill which is about 3 miles north east of Chieveley, we were fired from the  front and hurried to support the mounted Infantry who had driven the Boers back and occupied Hussar Hill. Here we remained all day supporting the guns which were now able to shell Hlangwane and Cingolo Heights and which drew a good deal of rifle fire and started the pompoms which is perhaps the most beastly weapon they have. It is practically a Vickers Maxim firing 1, 1/4lb shells in quick succession like an ordinary Maxim. When this beast fires you cannot make out where it comes from – of course there is no smoke, you hear in the distance  from pompoms, there is then a dead silence and you hope it is not near you. After several seconds you hear busy b?? and you see small clouds of dust scattered about indiscrimately all over the place and you are not happy till you hear the last one burst. I have heard as many as 21 of these pom poms go off at once. At present we have none of these weapons, but I believe some are coming. To return to Hussar hill, here we remained more or less in the same position supporting the next two days each regiment of the Brigade taking it in turns to be in the firing line. From now onwards we began to bivouack  without fires and usually without great coats which came in on low wagons and usually broke down.

On Saturday the 17th the general advance began. Littleton’s division who had been working round on our right all the time attacking Lingots Tek the Boers left. Our brigade advanced down to and crossed the Bloukrans River which was practically dry. The brigade then changed direction left and with the Welsh leading drove the Boers back to Green Hill. Our losses up to date were five wounded.

The next day, the 18th, the main attack on the Boer position. Our Brigade headed by the Scots stormed and took Green Hill which had been heavily shelled both by the Field Howitzers and the Naval Brigade for the last three days. Littleton simultaneously taking Monte Christo, a very high ridge running North towards the Tugela. Our attack was made through most difficult country consisting of a succession of steep ridges with deep streams in between, the last one being exceptional steep. The whole covered with very thick thorn bushes and weeds. Needless to say through this difficult country some companies and battalions lost their direction and the whole order got changed. Ever since we left Chieveley the heat had been terrific – just as hot in shade without its comforts and everybody the men especially who inevitably emptied their water bottles at first, feeling thirsty suffering badly from want of water. We got to the top of the hill about 4pm and were ready to follow up our success, but as has been the case throughout, Butler stopped us and here we stayed for the night. This was the first night of a long series without coats. The Boers had evidently left in a hurry leaving tents, provisions and ammunition.

Boer War Map 2

On Monday we continued our advance, our Brigade attacked Hlangwane ourselves  leading which we took at midday being practically unoccupied much to our surprise evidently the Boers were afraid of their line if it@@@ across the river being cut off. The going was almost as bad as the day before only more open. On reaching the top we came under a very heavy shell fire and rifle fire from Fort Wylie and Colenso which lasted about two hours in this direction which under cover of a heavy thunderstorm the Boers tried to attack our right and firing continued till dusk. Although the Boers as usual made good practice, yet our casualties would have been very small owing to the excellent cover on the top of the hill. Except for reinforcements being called up from the Scots which entailed D Company advancing and unaccountably missing the Scots who had retired, so the former getting very close to the Boers whose locality was not known as they had a few snipers well hidden all over the place who directed their attention on Thurloe’s company, he being mortally wounded in the intestines and also wounding Packe and 12 men. The company then retired, Thurloe in some unaccountable way being left till he was found the next morning unconscious and died as soon as he was brought in. We, on the hill, were soaked to the skin and the only reason we wanted the rain was to drink the water out of the crevices of the rocks having been unable to get our water bottles filled before starting in the morning. As firing continued till dark we could get no orders for the night and companies had to form an outpost line as best they could. It was the worst night of the whole lot. We were all soaking wet and shivering with the cold, the officers had not even waterproof sheets. Personally I walked about filling our water bottles from the Cactus leaves and getting no sleep. We were glad when day light came as we were all feeling a bit low but our spirits were soon revived when we found the Boers had gone and that they had left plenty of provisions in the shape of flour, onions left behind. We also found any quantity of shells from pom poms and ammunition of all kinds, tents, rings, 2 or three watches. Hardly any of us left the hill without some relic. Soon after breakfast, we left the hill and spent a quiet day behind a ridge and had a good night’s rest. Littleton’s division kept pushing on towards the river and on our extreme right, the Boers holding really the whole line of the river bank and their kopjes on their own right of it which made a good line . The banks are exceptionally steep all along here.

The next  morning, the 21st , we advanced straight along the ridges North of Hlangwane towards the river, the Boers having taken up a position on the far bank and we more or less lined our side of the river. The sappers pontooned the river near Fort Wylie and Lyttleton took his divisions across being pounded at by the Boers big guns all the time. They sniped us all day and at night we bivouacked near Flaygon

The next morning Saturday Feb 24th, turned out to be the worst day for us in the campaign, on looking round we found the Welsh Fusiliers on our left and the Devon’s on our right. After being fired on all night, we came in for very heavy enfilade fire on our left a frontal fire and a slight enfiladed fire on our right. Our guns seemed powerless against theirs and we could not stop the pompoms. Luckily nearly all the shells and pom poms went over our heads and on to the plain at the bottom of the other kopje where nobody was. At 5 pm we had an alarm to say the Boers were advancing on our left flank and the Welsh sent down to say unless we sent up reinforcements they would have to leave the ridge. Two companies immediately went up and began blazing away like madmen till they were stopped. The whole thing turned out to be a false alarm and we never discovered who started it. During the day Colonel Thorold of the Welsh was killed and Colonel Donald took command of both Regts. Our casualties were 1 killed and 28 wounded, D company losing 15. The difficulty was getting the wounded on the hill from the firing line as it took at least 4 men to every stretcher and bullets were whizzing all over the place. The men were able to get their rations up and we were able to get our meals in a douga<?>. In the evening we were brought down into the supports and got a good night’s rest although we had a small alarm about midnight when we went up to the firing line for about an hour. In the night our sangers were improved and when daylight broke firing was all going on but at 9am a truce was declared to bury the dead. We now learned that Harts Brigade made an attack the evening before and had failed, loosing heavily, consequently the flags of truce. We now were able to stand on the crest and examine the Boer trenches which were from three to nine hundred yard’s distant. During a conversation with Commandant Pietorius, he said that they ( the Boers)  were not half such savages as we thought  they were and also he would not believe that Cronje had surrendered. At six in the evening peace ended and we resumed our former positions. They sniped at us all night and we had the usual night alarm.

Monday 26th Feb was just the same, we were ordered to keep up a desultory firing all day and they both shelled and sniped us very severely at times. At night time, we were ordered again into the firing line. The next day we were again ordered to keep up a desultory fire and at 3 pm we were ordered to keep up a heavy fire while Barton and Hart delivered our attack on our right to draw the Boers fire. By Jove we did this with a vengeance, they shelled us dreadfully in return sending big bits of rock all over the place which did more damage than the shells themselves. About this time poor Macartury was hit with a bullet through the head ( we hear he is still alive and making fair progress but I am afraid he will be deficient of one of the five sense ). Firing slackened about four and shortly afterwards we heard that Harts and Barton’s ( who had the Scots , Irish and Dublin’s ) attack had succeeded. We were then told to get ready to leave the kopje as soon as it was dark but we remained here in readiness till the next morning without moving so we did not get much rest that night. On Wednesday 27th two companies went to relieve the Devon’s on our right and by Jove they had had an even worse time than us, the stones were perfectly blue with pom poms and bullets, however as they had excellent cover their casualties were almost nil. Our casualties for the four days were about seventy. On the morning we found the Boers had trekked and as usual left a lot of loot behind. About 10am after having had a good breakfast on Boer loot consisting of flour, onions and potatoes we all left the kopje and marched to Pieter’s Hill to relieve the Scots and Irish Fusiliers. I saw my first dead Boer, we also saw where the battle of the previous day had taken place. Both the Scots and Irish lost heavily, the former could not get their men to follow them, the latter could not keep up with their men. Two companies went on outpost the remainder spent a quiet day.

The next day the 28th we marched to Nelthorpe and bivouacked under Isimbulwhana We now had our great coats since we left Hussar hill.

The next morning (March 1st) we heard that the road to Ladysmith was clear and that the Boers had Trekked. Instead of pursuing , we remained where we were all day on Saturday 2nd , we made our triumphal entry into Ladysmith, the Garrison lining the Streets and encamped 3 miles North of Ladysmith. On our march in we passed two things of interest one a big dam the Boers were making across their kopje with sand bags to try and flood Ladysmith out, the other was Intombi hospital where all the Ladysmith sick had been and which was neutral ground. At one time there were over two thousand sick in the hospital. Our first wash of any kind was on the Sunday where we had the truce, so we went eleven days without touching water except to drink so you can imagine how glad we were to get a wash. One word more as to the great, the ASC, did us all  A1 giving us  Bully biscuits and game twice a week and Rum every night. Now and again the Officers had a little extra as we managed to get some or our supports up. During the fortnight , we also had a good many wet nights which I have not mentioned as we soon dried when the sun rose in the morning.

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