An account, based on the Annals of the Yeomanry Cavalry of Wiltshire, (The Prince of Wales' Own Regiment), of the part played by the Regiment in the South African War, 1899-1902.
According to its annals, the Yeomanry Cavalry of Wiltshire was formed in 1794 after Mr. Pitt, the Prime Minister of Britain, proposed in the House of Commons various methods for strengthening the internal defences. His speech mentioned for the first time "Yeomanry Cavalry". After his introduction of "A Bill to Encourage and Discipline Volunteers", the High Sheriff of Wiltshire called a meeting of county magistrates, at which a decision was taken to engage to march when called on, but only to be liable to be called out of the county for the suppression of riots or tumults within their own adjacent counties, or by Royal Warrant, in case of invasion.
In 1797, Lord Bruce, Captain of the Marlborough troop, thought of forming the 10 troops that had been raised into a Regiment which, with the consent of the Government, became the Regiment of Wiltshire Yeomanry Cavalry, the Senior Regiment in the Service.
Just over one hundred years later, after the outbreak of the South African War (1899-1902), when the War Office was at its wit's end to provide reinforcements, particularly mounted troops, for which every General in South Africa was clamouring, the Marquis of Lansdowne suggested calling on the Yeomanry Cavalry to help meet the deficiency, an idea which had been stimulated bv another Wiltshire man, Colonel Long. At the end of 1899, the Government announced that it had decided to raise a mounted infantry force, "The Imperial Yeomanry", for service in South Africa, and also to accept the service of a limited number of volunteers. The men were to be dressed in Norfolk jackets of neutral-coloured woollen material, breeches and gaiters, laced boots and felt hats, strict uniformity of pattern not being insisted upon. Each man was to bring his own horse, clothing, saddlery and accoutrements; arms, ammunition and camp equipment were to be provided by the Government.
The response throughout the country was immediate, and the offices of the Imperial Yeomanry Committee in London were besieged by crowds of candidates. In Wiltshire, Colonel Long applied for the use of the empty Artillery Barracks at Trowbridge which were soon overflowing, many men being billeted in the town and in the military hospital. Some of the officers were so anxious to be of service that, the day they got their telegrams calling them to duty, they rode straight to Trowbridge from the local meet, still dressed in hunting kit. So many men volunteered for active service that three squadrons were formed. The weather was so bad all the time the troops were at Trowbridge, that riding drills in the open air were nearly impossible, but a large circus tent was used as a supplementary riding school. The Government allowed 25 UK Pounds per man for clothing and equipment, and 40 UK Pounds per horse, but a public subscription was started by Lord Lansdowne to supplement this, and several past and present officers joined together to provide a Colt gun for the Regiment. Eventually two were purchased - which gave good service in action. Local people also offered assistance; one lady promised to provide a horse, free of charge, to any yeoman of the Salisbury Troop; the head gardener at Wilton sent a pair of field-glasses, and a saddler of Urchfont offered to fit any saddle sent to him, free of charge. The County Fund provided many articles of equipment not covered by the Government grant, and in addition paid the premiums required to insure, for 250 UK Pounds, the life of each yeoman going on service.
It was a pity that all Yeomanry regiments were not able to have a full complement of their own horses which were thoroughly trained and fit. Those companies which took out their own mounts had a great advantage over those which were hurriedly mounted at the camp on arrival. Many of these animals, besides being untrained, had only just been landed after long voyages and were unfit for any kind of work, and many could not be shod, having stood in muck up to their hocks during the entire voyage. They became lame after a march or two over stony ground. There were also shortages among the first Yeomanry troops to be landed in South Africa, one being a lack of cloaks. This was overcome by issuing to each trooper an extra horse blanket, which had a hole for his head cut in it.
Primus in Armis
There was keen competition among the Imperial Yeomanry regiments to get early embarkation dates and, as the Royal Wiltshires had been first in the field, it was expected that they would leave early, but the two troopships, Afric and Goth, both named as reserved for the First Imperial Yeomanry, sailed with other corps. It was not until late February that the contingent got embarkation orders. They had an enthusiastic send-off from the people of Trowbridge, a hundred torchbearers lighting their way to the station, and the band of the Volunteer Regiment playing them out. The 1st and 2nd Companies sailed on the hired transport Cymric from Liverpool, arriving at Cape Town on March 23rd, 1900, while the 63rd Company sailed on the Cornwall from London, arriving on March 30th. The men and horses were at once marched up to the base camp of the Imperial Yeomanry at McKenzie's Farm, near Maitland.
As there was great difficulty in supplying Lord Roberts's army with food and ammunition by the single line of railway, 800 miles or so in length, there was little transport for troops, so a great number of men accumulated at the Cape Town bases. At one time, there were nine regiments of Imperial Yeomanry - almost five thousand officers and men at McKenzie's Farm, and the water-supply became a problem. The weather was very hot and there was much sickness. An early casualty was Colonel Challoner who, from "incautious exposure to the sun', had to be invalided home.
In mid-April No. 2 Company was moved by train to Springfontein, a few miles across the Orange Free State border, while the 3rd and 4th Companies were kept at Norval's Pont, all later joining forces at Edenburg, where they were occupied escorting convoys and doing reconnaissance. Eventually the Regiment reached Bloemfontein on May 1st, then went by easy marches to Thaba 'Nchu where they joined the 8th Division under General Rundle who was trying to surround the Boer forces operating in the eastern corner of the Free St-ate. He planned to drive them into the Brandwater Basin, a valley in the upper part of the Caledon River.
In early May, half of No. 2 Company was posted to Winburg where it became Major-General Clements's advance guard on the march to Senekal, the only mounted troops with the Brigade. The other half of the Company was ordered to Ficksburg, while No. 4 occupied Ladybrand, and No. 1 was sent to Leeuw River Mills, about 15 miles from there. On May 24th, the Queen's Official Birthday, the Ladybrand garrison held a parade at which was read the Proclamation announcing the annexation of the Free State, officially styled, the Orange River Colony.
At Senekal a party of Imperial Yeomanry, including a detachment of No. 2 Company, rode into the town to see if the water supply was adequate for the Division. A Boer, said to be the Landdrost, submitted to Major Ashton, the Commanding Officer, who posted picquets round the town, and proceeded to collect arms from the inhabitants. Then a number of the Middlesex Yeomanry arrived and, as there was no sign of the enemy, they dismounted in the centre of the town. They were scarcely off their horses when hot fire opened from the surrounding hills. The Middlesex remounted and led by Major Dalbiac, a brave and reckless officer, made a determined charge up a steep hill occupied by Boers. The gallant Dalbiac made three efforts to close with the enemy, but fell, while most of the men who followed him were either killed or wounded. General Rundle heard the firing and sent up some guns which speedily drove off the Boers. The men of No. 2 Company captured an enemy flag which was taken back to England and presented to Colonel Long.
At the end of May, Colonel Golightly took over command of the 1st Regiment which was employed on escort duty and reconnaissance with the 8th Division, and was under fire daily, for the whole country was alive with scattered bands of the enemy. Meanwhile the 63rd Company had a weary wait at the Cape Town base, owing to the difficulty of getting rail transport, but at last they marched to Stellenbosch, whence they were sent by rail to Winburg, where they were posted to the Brigade commanded by Maj.-General Clements. They were then ordered to march to Lindley, by way of Senekal, to meet up with General Paget's force. On the way, they twice came under fire from Boer guns, but reinforcements despatched by General Clements forced the Boers to retire, so they were able to resume their march, arriving at Senekal on June 27th, 1900.
By then the preparations for a campaign against the Boers in the Orange River Colony were complete. In this campaign all three Wiltshire Companies took part. The Boer Generals, de Wet, Prinsloo and Olivier, with a strong force, were located in the mountainous country around Bethlehem, and it was General Rundle's intention to surround them and drive them into the area bordered by the Caledon River and Basutoland. At the beginning of July, Generals Clements and Paget marched from Lindley, with their united forces, for Bethlehem, the two columns moving along separate roads, about 10 miles apart. After skirmishes on the way, the two columns reunited about four miles from Bethlehem, whence Maj.-General Clements sent in a flag of truce, demanding the surrender of the town, but a curt refusal came from General de Wet, the commander.
For some time Bethlehem had been the headquarters of the Free State Boers. About four thousand of them occupied the surrounding hills, and six or seven large guns were favourably placed to defend the town, but a determined attack by the British put the Boers to flight and the town surrendered. The Boers had made a stand to cover the removal of their stores, for all they left behind were several loads of flour which made a welcome addition to the scanty British rations, especially to General Paget's men who had been on short rations for some time. On the following day, Sunday, the troops enjoyed a well-earned rest for they had endured bitter cold on the winter marches, exposed to icy winds and dust as they bivouacked at night, while by day they had been constantly under fire from an unseen and elusive opponent.
As the Boers retreated, the only town remaining in their possession was Fouriesburg in the Brandwater Basin. There were seven well-marked passes through the mountains by which they could escape; Commando Nek to the south, Wit Nek to the north, Slabbert's Nek and Retief's Nek to the north-west and Slaap Krantz to the east, leading into the valley of the Little Caledon from which there were two other passes, Naauwpoort Nek and Golden Gate. All these passes were watched by Generals Rundle, Campbell, Hunter and Macdonald. General Paget, who had been delayed by lack of supplies near Bethlehem, moved up to Slabbert's Nek, joining forces with Maj.-General Clements who was near Bulfontein. But this delay had disastrous consequences, for the Boer Generals, de Wet and Steyn, with two thousand men and five guns, were able to steal away through Slabbert's Nek, and, although hotly pursued, were able to escape with trifling losses. Had the Boer Generals decided on a common plan of action, the whole of their forces might have escaped, but there was so much discussion that in the end de Wet went off with his commando on his own.
Later General Olivier, with the Harrismith commando, managed to slip through the Golden Gate pass with fifteen hundred men and five guns, but General Prinsloo, finding himself outnumbered and surrounded, entered into negotiations with General Rundle, and, on August 4th, surrendered unconditionally with over four thousand men. A large quantity of ammunition was captured and destroyed, and many oxen and wagons laden with stores were seized, together with thousands of cattle.
At the close of the campaign against Prinsloo, the 63rd Company joined the Brigade under General Paget. They escorted the prisoners to Winburg, whence they were sent by train to Cape Town. The 63rd then returned to Senekal in charge of a convoy and five hundred horses and mules. After handing these over, the Company returned to Winburg, then marched to Smaldeel where they entrained for Pretoria, while the 3rd and 4th Companies with the 8th Division marched to Harrismith in order to reopen rail communications with Natal.
After Prinsloo's surrender, it was thought that the war was over in the Orange River Colony, but de Wet with his commando was active in the Kroonstad district, and Olivier was reported to be at Frankfort and marching to join him, both commandos showing that they still had plenty of fight left in them.
General Hunter moved from Bethlehem to Heilbron, and thence to Lindley where he arrived in early August, having sent his sick and wounded men, with the animals and wagons captured in the Brandwater Basin, to Kroonstad. He then followed hard on the track of the Boer commandos, and crossed the Rhenoster River to find Olivier, with nearly two thousand men and six guns, posted in a strong position across the road. He attacked at once. After several hours fighting, the Boers retired to Winburg and the position was taken.
On August 20th, a small detachment of No. 2 Company under Lt. Speke, was sent from Ficksburg to round up some stragglers from Olivier's commando, and hearing that a party of Boers was at a farm near Senekal, it made an attempt to surround the place and take them prisoner. The Boers were more numerous than anticipated, and they put up such a good defence that the Yeomanry were beaten off, leaving two dead and four wounded, who were brought in when the Boers rode off. A few days later, the 2nd Company was again in trouble, when a small force was sent to the Brandwater Basin to attack a farm house in the mountains, said to be held by Boers. The house was surrounded at daybreak, but some of the Boers had taken refuge in a nearby cave which two of the British officers attempted to enter, one being killed and the other severely wounded. Reinforcements arrived after the firing was heard but, in the confusion following the loss of the two officers, the Boers escaped, with the loss of one killed and 17 taken prisoner.
At this time British troops occupied Harrismith, Bethlehem, Fouriesburg and Heilbron, and the railway from Harrismith to Natal was open, but the line from Naauwpoort through Bloemfontein and Winburg to the Transvaal was very weakly held. There was much uneasiness at Bloemfontein, then little more than a vast hospital, as Olivier's commando was thought to be in the neighbourhood, and for defence the town only had two companies of Imperial Yeomanry and four of Infantry. The capture of the old Free State capital would have been a great moral setback, and the interruption of rail communications most inconvenient. Kroonstad, full of stores intended for the Transvaal Army, was also held by only a small garrison. General de Wet seemed unaware of this, as his commando explored all round the vicinity, but only broke up the railway line in several places, once almost catching Lord Kitchener, who was travelling on the line at the time.
General Olivier, with his commando, now moved to the region round Winburg, where Colonel Ridley, Imperial Yeomanry, was commanding the garrison. On August 20th, he was ordered to move his three hundred mounted troops towards the Doornberg range of hills and join up with a small column under Colonel Sitwell. Olivier got wind of this and attacked with all his commando. Ridley retired to a farm, Helpmakaar, about 10 miles from Winburg, where he was surrounded by the Boers, but refused to surrender. Although shelled continuously for 48 hours, Colonel Ridley handled his small force with great skill and gallantry, later being complimented by Lord Roberts for his defence of the farm. He beat off several attacks, holding out until relieved by General Bruce Hamilton who came by train from Heilbron on the 25th.
After the relief of Helpmakaar, the troops returned to Winburg where General Bruce Hamilton made arrangements to return to Kroonstad by train. General Olivier heard of this move through the tapping of telephone wires, and after waiting until he thought General Hamilton had left, he attacked Winburg. But the trains had been delayed, so the troops were still there, and the Brigade beat off the Boers who suffered considerable losses. The retreating Boers were followed up by Colonel Ridley and his mounted troops, including a contingent of the Queenstown Volunteers. One of these, named Sladdin, being well in advance of the rest, finding himself surrounded by Boers, posted himself on a small koppie where he was joined by seven of his comrades. There they captured 24 Burghers as they rode by, among them General Olivier and his three sons. They managed to hold their position though attacked by many Boers, eventually bringing their prisoners safely to Winburg, a feat remarkable for its coolness and audacity.
After the capture of Olivier, the commando, deprived of his leadership and authority, became less dangerous. Most of the Boers, now under Haasbrock and Fourie, made off in the direction of Ladybrand, where a large quantity of stores had been collected. The town was held by half of No. 1 Company under Captain Graves, and was commanded by Major White of the Royal Marines, who was given instructions to evacuate the place, and cross into Basutoland and retire to Ficksburg, as it was found impossible to send troops to Ladybrand in time to intercept the Boers. But the Caledon River was in flood and unfordable, which gave Major White a valid excuse to remain and make a stand. Major White then moved his force, including the men of No. 1 Company, to a small fort just outside the town to which were carried all the stores time permitted, the rest being destroyed. Even so, the men indulged in a practical joke for the benefit of the expected Boers, by filling the emptied rum casks with water and several provision cases with earth. A party of Imperial Yeomanry was withdrawn from Leeuw River Mills to Ladybrand. It had only just finished digging shelters and trenches around the fort when the advance guard of the commando was reported to be near the town. It retired to the fort just before the main body of three thousand Boers arrived, bringing with it four 12-pounder and two 15-pounder guns and two pom-poms. On Sunday, September 2nd, 1900, the Boers sent in a flag of truce with demands for immediate surrender, to which Major White replied that, if they wanted the place, they could come and get it.
The Boers then opened fire which lasted until late in the afternoon, when an attempt to rush the trenches was easily repulsed. The firing continued all the next day; no one could leave the trenches for food or water, except at night at considerable risk, for rifle fire was kept up all the time. The horses and oxen brought into the lines and hidden, some in a cave and others in a ravine, were killed by shell fire, their position having been given away to the Boer gunners by an escaped prisoner; also the wagons and water barrels were smashed to pieces. Meanwhile Sir G. Lagden, with thousands of Basutos, had been watching the fight's progress from the hills across the river, and had been trying to communicate with the besieged by heliograph. But Major White had no signalling apparatus until Corporal Blencowe of the Wiltshires improvised one with a piece of mirror. A message was then received, saying that General Bruce Hamilton was on his way with five thousand men to relieve them. This message was also read by the Boers, who, disregarding their leaders' urging them to storm the fort at once, began to slip away. By Wednesday morning, the commando had disappeared. The relieving column came in at mid-day, and tried to pursue the Boers but they got clean away.
Owing to the disturbed state of the country, it was thought advisable to move the stores from Ficksburg, and No. 2 Company under Colonel Golightly removed them, together with a large quantity of gold from the town banks, across the border into Basutoland. Then the Wilts Company rejoined the 16th Brigade at Spitzkop on September 9th.
The No. 1 Company was sent back to Zand River and thence to Winburg, where it was garrisoned for six months to guard the railway and escort patrols and convoys. On March 30th, 1901, No.1 Company went by train to rejoin the Regimental Headquarters at Harrismith, the journey taking seven days as they could only travel by day, and because a portion of the line had been blown up. Later the Company formed a guard at the Bloomfield Bridge and while there, orders were received for the original members of the Imperial Yeomanry to proceed to Cape Town, where they embarked on the Roslyn Castle for England, arriving at Southampton on July 8th.
The No.2 Company left Ficksburg at the end of August 1900 and later joined the 8th Division at Bethlehem, being attached to General Campbell's 16th Brigade. The Division was occupied in clearing the country between Bethlehem and Harrismith for the next 10 days, then, joining up with General Macdonald's force from across the Vet River, they attacked a Boer commando menacing Brandfort. There followed a skirmish at Bronkhorstfontein near Bethlehem, after which the Boers broke up into small parties and scattered among the hills, whereupon General Campbell, with No. 2 Company, returned to Bethlehem.
As General de Wet was at large again in the Orange River Colony, Lord Roberts formed a fresh plan to deal with him. The Colonial Division and de Lisle's Brigade were ordered to the Rhenoster River, and four Infantry Brigades, including General Campbell's, were detailed to support them and converge on Lindley, but the Boer commandos continued to slip through the cordon as usual, before the columns were in touch with one another. No.2 Company was concerned in several skirmishes. It had an encounter with some Boers at Tafel Kop, and, when returning to its garrison at Vrede from Standerton, where it had gone by rail to draw supplies, it was attacked by a party of Boers just outside the town, but casualties were small. On October 11th, the No. 2 Company again went on trek with General Rundle, marching to Reitz, thence to Bethlehem and on to Harrismith, then back to garrison Vrede. These repeated and wearisome expeditions had little effect in pacifying the country which, apart from the towns, was in the hands of the Boer commandos, and the British Generals were unable to deal with these for lack of mounted men.
Bloemfontein was practically besieged, while repeated attacks were made on isolated posts throughout the Colony. During October, Bulfontein, Philippolis, Fouresmith and Jacobsdal were attacked. The first three places were garrisoned by the Yeomanry who beat off their attackers, the latter suffering considerable losses. On November 13th, No. 2 Company again marched to Harrismith where it remained in garrison until the end of January 1901, when it took over guard duty at the Bloomfield railway bridge under the command of Captain Speke. Six weeks later, the Company returned to Harrismith, and with General Rundle's force, took part in a "Boer drive". On paper, the British force appeared to be large but, in fact, it was quite inadequate to cover the extent of the country embraced by the operations. Apart from the capture of a quantity of cattle and wagons, it accomplished little, as the Boer commandos easily evaded the British columns.
The Division left Harrismith on April 19th, Vrede having been evacuated. They marched to Bethlehem, harassed by the enemy all the time, No. 2 fighting a stiffly-contested rearguard action at Tiger's Kloof. General Rundle entered the Brandwater Basin by way of Retief's Nek, and on May 2nd, the Division occupied Fouriesburg. Here the Division split up into small columns which scoured the country, clearing out farms, burning mills and collecting sheep and cattle.
At the end of May, orders came for the recall of the original Imperial Yeomanry, and the three companies of the 1st Regiment were sent back to Harrismith, while the few remaining with the 2nd Company entrained for Cape Town, being delayed for six days at De Aar. They then sailed on the S.S. Manchester Merchant for England, landing at Southampton on July 19th.
The 63rd Company, having arrived in Pretoria in August 1900, was posted to the Brigade under Colonel Hickman, and formed part of General Paget's command. It was employed on patrol duties on the western side of Pretoria, until it formed part of the strong force which Lord Roberts sent to clear the railway line from Pretoria north to Pietersburg, joining General Baden-Powell at Waterval. The line of march was through the bushveld which afforded excellent cover for the Boers. There was continuous sniping by small parties, and several patrols which lost their way in the thick bush were cut off and captured. They eventually reached the crossing over Pienaars River, to find the bridge had been blown up by the Boers. The column then moved to Warmbad, driving out the Boers and liberating one hundred British prisoners. Nylstroom was then occupied, and a large quantity of stores was captured, after which the Boers scattered in the bush.
At the end of August, the 63rd returned to Warmbad where they were practically besieged until General Plumer came in on September 5th, the Company retiring with him to Pienaars River and thence to Waterval. They took part in several small expeditions, trying to ckar the Boers out of the bushveld without much success, until they returned to Pretoria during the middle of October. On October 25th, the proclamation, announcing the annexation of the Transvaal, was read by the Governor in the presence of the whole garrison, including the 63rd, and the Royal Standard was hoisted to a salute of 21 guns, after which the troops marched past and saluted the flag.
On November 4th, the 63rd returned to Waterval, where it rested until December 19th, when the Company was sent out to Hebron and Bethanie to round up some Boers, returning on Christmas Day with 30 prisoners. On the 29th, the Company again left to take part in a movement against De la Rey, and after an extended march round the Magaliesberg, returned to Pretoria on January 17th.
A combined movement was organised against General Louis Botha who was giving trouble in the Eastern Transvaal. The 63rd was attached to the Brigade under Colonel Jefferies in General Plumer's column, and sent by train to Balmoral. These operations were no sooner started than they were suspended, as it became imperative to stop de Wet, then in the Orange River Colony, from invading the Cape Colony. General Plumer's force was brought to Naauwpoort and then to Colesberg. By February, de Wet was reported to be at Philippolis with three thousand men and seven guns, having collected a large number of horses and supplies in the Fouriesburg district which was in Boer hands. There were already several marauding commandos under Kritzinger, Lotter, and Malan at large in the Cape Colony, which were getting help and encouragement from the rebellious Dutch population and, if a general of de Wet's ability, with a force of seasoned fighters, took command of the operations, the situation would be extremely dangerous. So all other operations were suspended and some twenty thousand men were moved to the Orange River frontiers. General Lyttleton, in charge of the campaign, had his headquarters at De Aar.
On February 10th, 1901, de Wet crossed the Orange River at Zand Drift, and moved south, where on the following day he was attacked near Colesberg by General Plumer's advance guard, including the 63rd Company. The weather turned extremely bad, deluges of rain fell without stopping, and turned the veld into a vast guagmire, making both British and Boer movements difficult. De Wet was attempting to escape while Plumer was hanging on to his retreating opponent.
On the afternoon of the 14th, the whole of the Boer force was sighted laagered four miles away. Preparations were made for an immediate attack when a tremendous hail storm, preceded by a strong wind and thick clouds of dust, lashed down with terrific violence. The attack had to be suspended until the storm had abated, and when the weather had cleared towards dusk, de Wet and his force had disappeared. It was growing dark, and the saturated ground was almost impassable, so the column bivouacked in the wet and cold.
The chase was renewed at dawn. De Wet and his men had a good lead and crossed the railway a frw miles below Potfontein, still heading west, but the heavy Boer transport could not be dragged through the rain-soaked veld, and during the day 40 wagons, a large amount of ammunition, a Maxim gun and 30 prisoners were taken. De Wet pushed on to Rietfontein, where his force divided into several parts, making towards Strydenburg. Plumer, who had left his transport to follow him, overtook de Wet's rearguard, and ordered Jefferies and his mounted men to attack at once, surprising the Boers at breakfast. They drove the Boers off in utter rout, pursuing them until the exhaustion of their horses compelled a halt. De Wet turned north, making for Hopetown where he expected to be joined by other commandos and to get fresh supplies and horses. The 63rd and a party of Australians were sent forward under Colonel Vialls to search for them. They were located at Kameel's Drift on the Orange River where de Wet laagered for the night. The river near Hopetown was in spate and, in attempting to cross, several Boers were swept away and drowned in the swollen current. So the crossing was abandoned and de Wet made for Prieska, hoping to cross the Brak River at Klip Drift, but this river was also in full flood, and, finding that British columns were in the area, he hurriedly turned north again and made two desperate but unsuccessful attempts to cross into the Orange River Colony, first at Kameel's Drift and then at Mark's Drift.
Colonel Viall's message reached Plumer when he halted for the night, so at dawn he started in pursuit, the advance guard coming up with de Wet's force at Pampoens Pan, 15 miles from Kameel's Drift. The Boers prepared to make a stand but were sharply attacked by Crabbe and Henniker, leading their advance columns, so they broke and fled in every direction, throwing away their arms and equipment and losing 40 men as prisoners.
They were hotly pursued, and towards evening their camp was sighted at Disselfontein. Without any hesitation, Colonel Marker of the Coldstreams led the Victorian Mounted Rifles straight for the two guns, followed at headlong speed by the 63rd and the Imperial Light Horse. The Boers again fled and the guns, a 15-pounder and a pom-pom, were taken. Although the Boer camp was captured, de Wet accompanied by his inseparable companion, ex-President Steyn, continued his flight, crossing the railway at Kraankuil. When this report reached General Lyttleton, all columns converged upon Zand Drift, where de Wet was expected to try to recross the river. De Wet kept his course along the now subsiding river, seeking a crossing - his capture by the converging British troops seemed inevitable. Just at the critical moment, Colonel Byng, who was to have closed and completed the circle from Colesberg, was mistakenly ordered to retire instead of advance. The wary and watchful Boer general at once grasped the opportunity and slipped through the gap, finding the ford at Lilliefontein passable. Thus he made his passage into the Orange River Colony with one thousand five hundred men, a few of whom were lost on the way after being fired on by a patrol of Nesbit's Horse. So ended the great hunt for de Wet from which so much was expected. Though the British failed to capture him, de Wet's expedition had not been a success. He had lost two hundred and fifty men, all his carts and wagons; and his troops, after being hunted continuously for three weeks, were in the last stages of distress and exhaustion.
The British columns which had marched three hundred and fifty miles in 13 days in the most dreadful weather, stopped in Hopetown to refit, and were then sent to Springfontein, between Bloemfontein and Norval's Pont. Here they detrained and marched to Philippolis, once again on de Wet's track. On March 3rd 1901, they engaged his rear guard at Zuurfontein, pursuing the Boers as far as Brandfort. De Wet's force then scattered and further pursuit was regarded as hopeless, so the 63rd was sent back to Bloemfontein to rest. Towards the end of March, they joined Colonel Byng's column and began a series of operations in the south-east of the Orange River Colony, intended to settle the district which had been in Boer hands under Fourie who had refused to follow de Wet across the Orange River. The column traversed the district for three weeks, collecting prisoners and cattle, their main achievement being the capture of Commandant Bresler and 83 men at Rietspruit Farm. Then orders came for the original men of the Imperial Yeomanry to return home, so the 63rd entrained for Worcester, and thence to Cape Town where they embarked on the Tintagel Castle.
Although the 63rd was continuously in the field for over a year, except for a short time spent in garrison at Waterval, and was under fire almost daily, it did not lose an officer or man killed in action, and only three died from disease.
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