The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 2 - December 1980

Nourse's Horse at Elandsfontein Ridge, 16 January 1881

by H.W. Kinsey

Nourse's Horse was raised by Captain Henry Nourse in 1880 with a strength of about 60 men, but as he fell sick early in the siege of Pretoria he was succeeded in command by Captain A. Woolls Sampson, who was himself wounded in the attack on Zwart Kopje on 6 January, 1881. Thus Lieutenant J.W. Glynn was in command in the attack on Elandsfontein Ridge on 16 January, 1881.

According to John Nixon 'the volunteers were clothed in neutral-coloured suits, with a bandolier full of cartridges over the shoulder, and each man carried a rifle.' It is also understood that the men wore light cord breeches and slouch hats. Officers wore helmets. The men wore blue pagris round their slouch hats and for this reason Nourse's Horse was also referred to as the 'blue puggarees' according to Walter Richards, who also tells us that, owing to a mistake on one occasion, which might have proved a serious one, the Pretoria Carbineers and Nourse's Horse carried red and blue flags, respectively, to denote their whereabouts in the field. The Pretoria Carbineers wore red pagris.

During the investment of Pretoria in the Transvaal War of 1880-1881 the military authorities, being aware of the desirability of cutting grass and making hay for the horses, commandeered mowing machines from merchant stores, and the first machine was started under the supervision of the head of a Government Department but that gentleman, zealous to secure a good cut one day, namely, 11 January, 1881, was led to go too far afield down the valley towards Elandsfontein west of Pretoria without first obtaining armed protection. He was attacked by a party of Boers but managed to escape without the mowing machine, a wagon and mules. This resulted in mowing machines being required to work under armed protection.

The loss of the mowing machine, wagon and mules captured by the Boers who were supposed to have come from a laager at Elandsfontein Farm, about 10 miles west of the camp in Pretoria, resulted in a reconnaissance in force in that direction on Sunday, 16 January, 1881. The aim was to ascertain more about the laager and to destroy it if possible.

The column left at four o'clock in the morning under the command of Lt-Col George Frederick Gildea, as Col William Bellairs intended leaving later on. The column consisted of two field guns, one mountain gun carried on a cart, 170 mounted men comprising 45 mounted infantry, 65 Pretoria Carbineers, and 60 Nourse's Horse, and 300 infantry made up of 120 Royal Scots Fusiliers, 30 from the 94th Regiment and 150 Pretoria Rifles - the latter being conveyed on mule wagons.

Lt R.P. Littledale of the Royal Engineers and a few sappers had been sent out in the opposite direction some miles to the east to create a diversion by exploding some dynamite which they did at about 6 a.m. when the main column was half-way to Elandsfontein. They succeeded in drawing parties of Boers towards the scene of the explosions.

Fifty men of the Pretoria Rifles were detached to hold a hill to the left, about three miles out, which commanded the Quagga Poort. Nourse's Horse scouted to the right, and the Pretoria Carbineers to the left front. On nearing the ridge the enemy was observed to be in occupation and to have lit a signal fire. Nourse's Horse was ordered to move towards the opposite end of the ridge where there were stone defences, and the Carbineers to a hill about 2 000 yards to the left as a precaution against any Boer reinforcements arriving. The remainder of the Pretoria Rifles was left on a rocky rise as a reserve. The wagons were laagered and the Royal Scots Fusiliers were thrown forward in skirmishing order. The two nine-pounder guns were brought into action.

Lt-Col Gildea, who had been reconnoitring on foot, had been able to pick out the laager which appeared to be a particularly strong one with a blockhouse in front and a loopholed wall and schanzes around. He decided that the best place from which to attack it with the least loss of life would be from the ridge where Lt J.W. Glynn and his men from Nourse's Horse, having left their horses under cover, were already busily engaged in dislodging the enemy from rock to rock. Col Bellairs, who had now arrived on the scene of action, decided to leave Lt-Col Gildea in command to carry out his intended plan which was to send the mountain gun and rocket apparatus, with 50 men of the Fusiliers, to support Nourse's Horse and drive the enemy off the ridge.

In the meantime the skirmishers, the Fusiliers along the base of the ridge and the 94th out to the left, were hotly engaged. The guns were dropping shells about the stone laagers and schanzes on the ridge, and the men of Nourse's Horse were vigorously forcing the Boers into the rear stone laager. It now seemed that, with the support of the mountain gun and the infantry on the ridge, the position and the laager would be taken, but there were difficulties and delays in hauling the gun up the ridge, and then Boer reinforcements began streaming over the Nek to the south and turning the attack on the left. Unfortunately, through some misunderstanding, the Pretoria Carbineers had been withdrawn to the bottom of the hill they had been holding and another large party of Boers arrived on the scene. The defending Boers on the ridge renewed their efforts when they saw the reinforcements arriving and it became necessary for Lt-Col Gildea to order a withdrawal. Col Bellairs agreed with this decision as it now became obvious that it would not be possible to develop the final assault on the ridge before the Boer reinforcements came up. The prolongation of the attack would have entailed the loss of many men without achieving any worthwhile result.

The withdrawal was effected in an orderly fashion, although the infantry were particularly harassed by the enemy. It was found that two Fusiliers and a mounted man of the 94th were missing and Lt-Col Gildea was inclined to return and bring them in, but abandoned this idea when he was informed that the enemy had been seen carrying them away. It appeared subsequently that the two Fusiliers, who had been on the extreme left of the skirmishing line, had not noticed that their comrades had retired. They were fired upon by some Boers who had come up on their flank and were both wounded, one mortally. This resulted in a display of great gallantry on the part of two men, Lance-Corporal James Murray of the mounted troop of the 94th Regiment and Trooper John Danaher of Nourse's Horse, who both dashed forward under heavy fire, to rescue the two wounded men.

The French war correspondent, Charles Du-Val, tells us that Murray and Danaher advanced for fully five hundred yards to where their wounded comrades were lying, exposed all the time to the fire of the Boers, until they reached the wounded men, to find that one was beyond human aid. They then carried the other man between them until Lance-Corporal Murray was shot in the back and fell alongside the comrade for whom he had risked his life. Murray then ordered Danaher to retire, and as the latter realized that he could not save Murray under such heavy fire, he fired a few shots over his prostrate companions, gathered up their rifles and marched coolly back to receive the praise of all who had witnessed his plucky adventure. Murray, and Davis, the wounded man of the 2/21st Royal Scots Fusiliers, together with the body of Private Charles Byrne of the same regiment, were returned the following day under a flag of truce. Unfortunately, Private Davis died five days later.

The Column commenced its return journey at about eleven o'clock with the infantry in the wagons following the road, whilst the guns, keeping to the higher ground, retired alternately with one gun always remaining in action to cover the other. Col Bellairs remained with the guns, directing their movements, as he feared a possible rush to capture them. The Pretoria Carbineers and the mounted infantry protected the right and rear, and Nourse's Horse the left. The Boers followed until within three miles of the camp, keeping up a running fight the whole time. They tried to gain possession of a kopje or position from which they would be able to harass the flank of the retiring column, but they were forestalled by the rapid movements of Lt Glynn and Nourse's Horse. The column eventually got back to camp at about three o'clock, the troops having been under fire for about six hours and under arms for nearly twelve hours.

In his official report on the action, dated 17th January, 1881, Lt-Col Gildea writes as follows:

'The behaviour of all ranks engaged was good, but I cannot but give to Nourse's Horse, under Lieut Glynn, the chief honours of the day; the manner in which they took the hill, and drove the Boers before them could not be surpassed, and I cannot say how much I regret not having had the pleasure of completing the work they had so well begun. The behaviour of Sergt. Fitz-Clements, Nourse's Horse, who captured four horses from the enemy, is deserving of special notice, but that of Trooper John Donagher, of Nourse's Horse, and Lance-Corporal Murray, 94th Regiment, forms the subject of a special report.

The above report appeared in the Transvaal Government Gazette of Tuesday, 25 January, 1881, together with the report of Col Bellairs in which he states:

'The way in which Nourse's Horse engaged the rebels during the attack on their strong position and subsequently selected and defended ground to cover the withdrawal specially attracted my attention and merits high commendation.'

The Boer casualties do not appear to be on record, but those of the British were the two men killed, namely, Private James Byrne of the 2/21st Royal Scots Fusiliers, and Corporal James Long of Nourse's Horse, apart from Private Davis who, as already mentioned, died five days later, and eight men wounded.

Elandsfontein Ridge was henceforth known as 'Nourse's Hill.' References:

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /