by Elizabeth Cox
After the Zulu War and the capture of the elusive Cetshwayo (itself largely the work of Maj R.J.C. Marter, King’s Dragoon Guards, and his troop), the King’s Dragoon Guards awaited posting to India. Public attention in England at the time was directed at the returning heroes — men like Hope, Crealock, Newdigate, Marshall, Wood and Buller — who were feted by town councils, mayors, the Fishmongers Company and the like. The departure from South Africa of the 17th Lancers in August 1879 meant that the King’s Dragoon Guards was the only imperial cavalry in the country and was therefore much in demand for communication, scouting and escort work.
Col H. Alexander, who at this time commanded the Regiment, was in command of the Utrecht district when Sir Garnet Wolseley moved his headquarters to Pretoria in a 19-day march via Wakkerstroom and Standerton, escorted by Capt H.P. Willan, King’s Dragoon Guards. Veterinary Surgeon Moore accompanied the march, as did Cpl Smith who was delighted to get away from Utrecht where, he insisted, beer was five shillings a bottle. Even a bad attack of dysentery and a new batch of horses to break in could not discourage him. The journey was not without incident. Apart from the extra twenty-six tents which had to be pitched for Sir Garnet Wolseley and his staff, the new horses stampeded from the camp at Standerton and were only recaptured with the aid of the ‘old’ horses which stood firm — while three horses were stolen by the Boers. Smith was sent ahead with the sick horses to get the camp laid out in Pretoria, where he spent the first night sleeping in 5cm of water because trenches had not been dug around the tents.
But the move to Pretoria was not followed by the expected orders to proceed to the coast for embarkation. In mid-October 1879, Sir Garnet Wolseley telegraphed the War Office that he was obliged at the last moment to detain the King’s Dragoon Guards in consequence of the state of affairs in the Transvaal. The Boer population, although known to be disgruntled with Britain’s annexation of their country in 1877, was considered by British administrators too disorganised and unsoldierly to pose any real threat to their power in the region; yet the military authorities found themselves having to cope with increasing Boer unrest. In spite of the distances and poor communications, the solution to the problem was thought to lie in the garrisoning of the major centres so as to deal with Boer disaffection on the spot. There were garrisons in Standerton, Wakkerstroom, Lydenburg, Marabastadt, Heidelberg, Middelburg, Rustenburg and the Lulu Mountains. The King’s Dragoon Guards found itself on garrison duty in Pretoria, Heidelberg and Wakkerstroom.
Those King’s Dragoon Guardsmen based in Pretoria had an active but frustrating time as they were called out on numerous occasions but never actually clashed with the Boers: Sir Owen Lanyon ordered them out on at least two occasions following attempts by Boers to seize arms illegally from town stores; on 30 October 1879, the King’s Dragoon Guards squadron which had just been sent to Potchefstroom was withdrawn because a 300-strong commando had assembled at Middelburg; on 9 December, a troop was marched out in Pretoria to back the civil authorities but was not involved in any clashes; and, then, on 11 December, the King’s Dragoon squadron, now posted only seven miles out of Pretoria on the Potchefstroom road, was ordered to draw swords should a party of Boers come near and, if necessary, charge them and return to Pretoria. By the end of the year, the Chief of Staff issued instructions for a mobile column consisting of the King’s Dragoon Guards, 13 companies of infantry and four guns of N/S Battery Royal Artillery to be on constant stand-by to relieve British troops and authorities, should the necessity present itself.
Cpl Smith was part of the garrison in Pretoria. In January 1880 he was admitted to hospital after a fall on some glass which injured his back. He was discharged after seventeen days but was soon back again with enteric and then again, in April, when it was found that he still had splinters in his back. In Pretoria, at least, there was no shortage of supplies as he was put on a milk diet with extra brandy, port, wine and eggs, then a chicken diet; and there was plenty of brandy to serve as an anaesthetic. He reports that there were seven or eight deaths in his ward from dysentery and fever but none was from the King’s Dragoon Guards. ‘At least,’ reflected Cpl Smith, ‘if you die in hospital you get a respectable funeral with a gun carriage for the corpse and a firing party to fire three volleys over the grave.’ Unfortunately, he does not report upon any of the official displays of force in which the King’s Dragoon Guards took part. He seems to have spent his time riding around the country on escort duty, either with prisoners or ammunition.
The King’s Dragoon Guards in Wakkerstroom and Heidelberg have no recorder of events except the testimony of their graves (two in Heidelberg and nine in Wakketstroom) that garrison duty could be as fatal as battle. The cause of their deaths is not recorded but sickness rather than wounds is the more likely. Lady Bellairs, the wife of Col Bellairs, the officer in command of troops in the Transvaal, in her book, The Transvaal War, deplored the garrison system and blamed it for the high cost of the army’s operations as well as for the low morale. Life cannot have been very pleasant for the troops, particularly the private soldiers, in these two garrison towns. They were living among people who, if not actively hostile, were unfriendly. Both towns were small places with rudimentary sanitation; particularly in the army camps, typhoid and other tropical diseases were endemic. Communications and therefore supplies were poor and slow, relying as they did on wagon transport on roads that could be washed away by the rains. Amusements were few. It is no wonder, therefore, that desertion in the army reached an all time peak in 1880 after the fall of Sekukuni’s stronghold in November 1879, which marked the end of active engagements for the army. Two hundred and sixty men deserted in 1880 from the army in the Transvaal and Natal (the King’s Dragoon Guards lost 62 men between 1879 and 1880) and it would seem more likely that men would have deserted in the Transvaal rather than in Native territory. Life outside the army in this relatively new country obviously offered many opportunities, too, particularly as there was no power of extradition from the Orange Free State. Lady Bellairs relates the story of a King’s Dragoon Guards officer who had crossed into the Orange Free State on his way to the races at Harrismith and how he had been obliged to stop at a forge to have his horse shod. It turned out that the farrier was a man from his own regiment who had deserted three weeks previously and set up a forge and was carrying on a very profitable trade. (Perhaps the person was Shoeing-Smith Steanes who is recorded on the deserters’ list).
The only other exploit during this period about which anything is known of King’s Dragoon Guardsmen, is of two volunteer officers who served in the latter part of 1879 with Lt Col Baker Russell in the campaign against Sekukuni in the Lulu Mountains. The two officers, Lt Cumming J. Dewar and 2nd Lt E.L. Wright, did not particularly distinguish themselves in action on 28 November 1879, but it is possible to reconstruct the scene because the gallantry of two Irishmen, Privates Thomas Flawn and Francis Fitzpatrick of the 94th Regiment, was recorded in the Illustrated London News. Lt Dewar, attached to the 94th at the time, was severely wounded when his thigh was shattered by a bullet at a point in the affray when he was accompanied only by the two privates and six soldiers of a Native contingent. The Natives proceeded to carry him down the mountain but abandoned him when about forty Bapedi appeared. He was then rescued by the two privates, one supporting him the other firing on their pursuers. For this they were both awarded the Victoria Cross. The cavalry during this campaign was described as ‘varied and picaresque’, so one imagines there were no King’s Dragoon Guards in the ranks!
During the first six months in 1880, the King’s Dragoon Guards was preparing to go to India. Advertisements for the sale of their horses announced their departure to anyone who was interested — and Cpl Smith mourned the loss of ‘a cavalryman’s best friend’. He missed the final review of the troops on 27 August before Maj Gen Sir George Pomeroy Colley, KGB. Cpl Smith travelled comfortably down to Pietermaritzburg with two mule wagons and some prisoners, and had time for a couple of gay weeks there before boarding the train at Camperdown for Durban and then the troopship ‘Orontes’, bound for Meerut, South India.
This should have been the end of the Regiment’s involvement in South Africa. But fate decreed that the troop of King’s Dragoon Guards which had remained in Pietermaritzburg under the command of Maj Brownlow, awaiting a ship to take them to England, was to travel to the Transvaal again to take part in the struggle at Laingsnek. Instead of raising and training troops in England, Maj Brownlow and his sergeant major, Lunny, found themselves hastily trying to form and equip a squadron of cavalry for immediate service with the relief column of British troops going to the aid of their besieged fellow-countrymen in the garrison towns of the Transvaal.
Maj Browniow managed to put together a squadron of around 120 mounted men drawn from the 58th Regiment,
60th Rifles and the Army Service Corps. Private Venables, King’s Dragoon Guards, reported in a letter to his brother
‘So we are just on the border now and advance into Boer country tomorrow and first go to Wakkerstroom to relieve two companies 58th Regiment, our little force consists of twenty five of our depot [King’s Dragoon Guards], all old soldiers, me about the youngest and 100 mounted infantry ... 125 Naval Brigade altogether about 2000 men, all under the personal command of Sir Geo. Pomeroy Colley, Gov. of Natal’.
In fact, the total force was only 1 200; although Venables talks about ‘25’ of his depot, the paysheet of the Regiment
for the last three months of 1880 shows 41 King’s Dragoon Guardsmen attached to the 60th Rifles, and therefore still
in South Africa. Venables’ letter concludes:
‘The Boers are all good shots; they won’t be like the Zulus - you will see we shall lose a good few before it is settled.’
This at least was an accurate forecast.
An artist’s impression of Tpr. J. Doogan’s rescue of Maj Brownlow at Laingsnek, the action for which he received the Victoria Cross.
Brownlow must have had considerable trouble finding mounts for these men since the regimental horses had all
been sold. Maj Gen Sir George Pomeroy Colley wrote to the Secretary of State for War in London on 10 January
‘I have established a general depot at Fort Napier and remount depots here and at Newcastle. Three hundred horses have already been purchased at an average price of a little under £30 for the mounted corps and artillery. Because of the drain of the Basuto War, I have applied to the Cape to assist in purchasing horses for the cavalry’.
And, in his official despatch, he praised Maj Brownlow:
‘With a small number of dismounted Dragoons, ASC and volunteers from infantry regiments at his command and great difficulty in obtaining horses and equipment, he has with indefatigable industry and zeal succeeded in creating a most serviceable mounted force with which he has admirably performed the scouting and other duties of the column’.
An officer, quoted by Butler in his biography of Colley, was less diplomatic and probably more accurate when he said:
‘The arrangements for the march are perfect but the cavalry arm is weak; a sprinkling of KDGs and the rest mounted infantry; a poor lot for T. Atkins* cannot shoot well on foot, and on horseback it takes all he knows to keep his seat’.
[*T(ommy) Atkins, orginally Thomas Atkins, the sobriquet for the British private soldier.]
The Natal Mounted Police, a trained body of men used to riding and shooting, were not deployed in the subsequent fight at Laingsnek because Maj Gen Colley had scruples about employing local troops for fear it would promote a ‘race struggle’. One wonders what Maj Brownlow thought of this decision or whether he, in any case, shared the prejudice of his contemporaries against locally raised and trained units.
Maj Gen Colley arrived and camped at Mount Prospect on 26 January. He found the Boers entrenched in the hill
through which he intended to pass and he decided to dislodge them at Laingsnek. Maj Brownlow and his mounted
infantry were an essential part of the attack: they were to charge to the left of the Boer lines to take a small hill
(still called Brownlow’s Kop) from which position they would be able to give some flank protection to the 58th who
were to mount the frontal attack. However, the cavalry charge did not go as planned. It was made with all the gallantry
and dash beloved of Victorian commentators. Sir Percival Marling, serving with the 60th Rifles, was lying in cover
awaiting his orders to advance. He describes how he saw Sgt Maj Lunny jump his horse over a stone wall right into
the Boer trenches. Maj Gen Colley, in his official account, describes the scene as follows:
‘The charge was splendidly led by Major Brownlow, who with Sergeant Major Lunny, was first on the ridge. Major Brownlow’s horse was shot under him and Sergeant Major Lunny was instantly killed; but Major Brownlow shot the Boer leader with his revolver and continued to lead his men who now crowned the ridge. Could he have been supported the hill was won, for the Boers had begun to retreat; but the fire was still heavy while many of the horses were quite untrained to stand fire. The support troop was checked, the leading troop fatigued with all their leaders down, could not push on and the whole gave way down the hill’.
In a private letter to Sir Gas-net Wolseley, Colley expressed his view of the action more clearly: ‘Brownlow bore more to the right than I had intended and came under fire and, drawing up his men facing the steep part of the hill charged right up to it before the infantry had begun their ascent. Of course in action the man on the spot must often decide the ground and moment of the charge, and Brownlow’s was gallantly made. Brownlow and a part of his leading troop, consisting principally of KDGs actually crested the ridge, his sergeant-major and corporal being shot in doing so, and Brownlow’s horse shot dead ... Brownlow, who was on foot, got off by a miracle; the whole lot went headlong down the hill and although the losses were not heavy (four killed and thirteen wounded, almost all out of the leading troop) the mounted men were practically out of action for the rest of the day’.
One of the important factors in the British defeat at Laingsnek was the failure of the cavalry charge. It exposed the 58th to constant firing from the flank as well as the front. Brownlow felt his failure very keenly as Maj Gen Colley reported in a letter to his wife: ‘Poor Brownlow is quite heart-broken, and when he came down refused to speak to his men or go near them’. The lack of experience among the mounted infantry could well account for the failure of the second troop to give support; but the Boers had an entrenched position with good cover and weapons as good as and markmanship probably better than, those of their opponents.
The King’s Dragoon Guards lost two men killed (Sgt Maj Lunny and Cpl Stevens, who were buried on the battlefield in a mass grave) and four wounded (Maj Brownlow, Pvt William Brown, Pvt George Coles and Pvt John Doogan, servant of Maj Brownlow). Doogan was wounded twice while obliging Maj Brownlow to) take his horse after the major’s horse had been shot. For this act of gallantry, Pvt Doogan was awarded the VC, the only VC so far awarded to the Regiment. It is unfortunate for the history of the Regiment that the incident should have taken place in an engagement which was so poorly reported in the press; there were no foreign correspondents at Laingsnek and even local reporters like C.L. Norris-Newman only arrived after the withdrawal from the Nek.
Two prisoners were taken by the Boers: Pvt Venables, King’s Dragoon Guards, and the other was Sgt Madden of the 58th Pvt Venobles was reported dead; Edward Bok, the Secretary of the South African Republic, wrote to his family in England not five days after the battle. The letter regretted ‘that men so brave should be victims of a mischievous policy of the English Government which sends brave soldiers to fight against men who only defend their liberty and the insdependence of their country’ and it enclosed a letter which Venables had written and not posted which had been found on his body. In fact, Venables was taken prisoner, and a special correspondent in the Boer camp took statements from him and his fellow prisoner in which Venables declared that he had ‘been well treated and received the same food as the people themselves, which of course is not our style, but as they are great eaters of meat is of a very similar character’.
The King’s Dragoon Guards obviously suffered heavily in the cavalry charge as they were in the first troop, but it is impossible to find out exactly how many remained in a condition to be part of the force of 38 mounted men under Maj Gen Colley in his attempt to clear British lines of communication between the camp at Mount Prospect and Newcastle. Maj Gen Colley obviously thought that a show of force would be enough to frighten the Boers, for he expected the column to be back in camp for dinner which was ordered for 15h30, and no water cart was sent with the troops. However, the engagement with the Boers which took place at Schuinshoogte was disastrous, particularly for mounted troops. There was very little cover for man, let alone horse; stones no bigger than 20 x 30,5cm bore many bullet marks and the men were pinned down until the sun went down. The Boer position was well protected, their whereabouts only being made known from the smoke of their shots. The horses were easy targets and by 18h00 only eight artillery and four stall horses were still alive. Maj Gen Colley reported: With a moderate force at my disposal, it would not have been difficult to have rolled up the Boer right which was dangerously extended and exposed, but the small mounted detachment under Major Brownlow, KDG, was too weak for such an attempt’.
Among the King’s Dragoon Guards there was only one wounded, Henry Davies, Farrier Sergeant, who suffered a head wound.
The mounted unit, such of it as remained, was not used in the final battle of the war — the attack on Majuba. The unit remained at Mount Prospect during the peace negotiations and by the end of March the King’s Dragoon Guards troop was on its way to England. They probably sailed with the Naval Brigade in HMS Dido on 29 March. If this is so, then they left behind Pvt Venables who was not released from Boer hands until 11 April 1881, when the prisoners arrived at Fort Amiel under Capt Hornby. Unfortunately, Pvt Venables left no account of his experience as a prisoner; his note to his family on his release only tells them that he was safe and sound and would be home soon. The only other King’s Dragoon Guardsman still in South Africa was experiencing prison of a different kind: Pvt Alfred Jessop was in a British prison in Pretoria. He had been released to serve in the foray against the besiegers at Nourse’s Range, had been wounded on 16 January and was back in prison from 26 to 31 March 1881.
So ended two years’ service for the Regiment in South Africa. The First Boer War was a campaign where the lack of cavalry, particularly trained and experienced cavalry, was felt on all sides. When next the King’s Dragoon Guards was to return to South Africa, in 1901, the position was much the same!
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