A member of the 10th Hussars and a survivor of the sinking of the SS Ismore near Paternoster, Arthur John Montgomery recounts his part in the successful routing of the Boer forces in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. In this episode Arthur Montgomery recalls his part in the attack on Sanna’s Post 16 miles outside Bloemfontein. Instead of success, the ambush by the Boers claimed countless lives and an ignominious retreat.
AJ’s narrative has been edited for readability and grammar, but it still largely remains the voice of the author narrating his impressions, concerns and fears while providing vivid pictures of war with Imperial Forces being decimated by Boers in front of the waterworks at Sanna’s Post.
Main picture: Painting of A.J. Montgomery of the 10th Hussars
Then came the tragic epidemic of enteric and dysentery. Thousands of men died as a result of this during April 1900. Many horses and oxen also died, their bodies lying all around the large camp just outside Bloemfontein. Millions of flies attracted by all the dead animals, added to our misery. Little water was available and that water that was available was invariably muddy. Our water carts had to maintain a continuous chain of miles marching to all the tented units in this large camp. I saw five pals in my section of eight in our tent being carried out by stretcher bearers, never to return. They had either died of enteric or dysentery. On returning from a reconnaissance patrol, we passed 6 G.S [General Service] wagons each with about 12 dead bodies wrapped in their Army blankets packed inside moving out to the Camps’ Burial Ground. One of the Medical Orderlies informed me that the small staff of Doctors, Nurses and Orderlies was unable to cope with the volume of chronic cases in the crowded Hospital Marquees. Neither was there sufficient milk nor medical supplies for the sick and wounded which exacerbated the unfolding tragedy.
The one morning, after resting for some time in the Camp, orders were issued to what remained of our troop, to parade saddled together with three days’ rations. The Boers were attempting to capture the waterworks near Sanna’s Post about 20 miles from our camp. Weren’t we glad to escape from the stinking dusty camp. Compared with a few weeks previously, our Squadron was at least half its prior strength.
The Cavalry going on this ill-fated venture, were composed of the 10th Royal Hussars, the 12th Royal Hussars, Robert’s Horse as well as Q Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery. Why I state that it was an ill-fated expedition, is that on our return to the Camp, we had suffered a serious reverse by losing 4 guns together with ammunition, approximately 100 killed, wounded and taken prisoner as well as many horses and some of our transport.
As far as I can remember after all these years, this venture unfolded in this way.
We trekked over open ground. Dried water courses and dongas all around our line of march caused us to lose sight of part of our force at times. Then suddenly crashes were heard left and right. Then boom. Whizz. Phutt. A shell burst amongst us in front of our column. Orders were shouted at us to gallop to low koppies ahead of us. “A” Squadron went at a gallop. We had only covered several hundred yards when we encountered murderous rifle fire. We swung away, leaving many countless men and horses killed and wounded. At last we came to a ridge. We halted and orders were given to dismount. Another shell fell; this time just behind us; then it burst where we had just been while closing up to the ridge.
On creeping over the edge, we spotted a large force of the enemy, concentrating their fire on our transport from 3 directions at once. We opened fire on the nearest body of the enemy about 400 yards away. They were completely taken my surprise by our rapid fire and scooted off leaving many dead behind. We could detect horses and men scattered about, some rushing for cover having lost their horses while yet others started firing back at us. Then we came under fierce cross fire from our rear. Our horse holders now attempted to get the horses under better cover. At last our Squadron commander issued orders to get back to our horses as the position that we were attempting to hold was on the flank of our force. Consequently it was too dangerous for us as we were being subjected to rifle fire from our flanks and our rear.
In response, we remounted our horses and cantered back to where the Commander of our force had taken up position. On the way back, my horse gave a whiney of pain as a bullet smashed into his hind quarters. He stumbled and nearly went down but I managed to keep his head up as we fell out of the ranks. Sergeant Gordon shouted to me to try and get it in slowly at a walk. Several of our troops had been wounded but managed to remain mounted. They passed by with words of encouragement. One man had slit his riding breeches so that I could spot the white bandage around his thigh as he sat awkwardly on the saddle. Another had bandaged his arm while still trying to reach the broken ground ahead. Bullets constantly whistled by us as the enemy maintained a barrage of fire at us from a low line of dongas and rough ground to our right. I proceeded along the low ground, and after a while, entered a small donga in which I was out of sight.
I dismounted, calmed my horse down as he was quivering from the pain of his wound and periodically he emitted a whinny of fear or excitement. Speaking to him calmly, I removed my field dressing which was stitched to my jacket. I found the wound, then pressed some cotton wool well inside it to plug and prevent it from bleeding. Then I walked him in to where the Squadron was taking cover behind a low koppie where the rest of the troopers were located. By now, all were dismounted except for the horse holders. We now took up positions about 100 yards ahead and commenced firing at the enemy.
By now Boer shells were bursting among us. I later heard that they were firing at us with some of our own guns, which they had captured in the early part of the engagement. At last came orders for us to retire. We found that the rest of our force was marching out whilst we formed the rear guard.
Eventually we arrived back at our camp at Bloemspruit. My horse’s flesh wound was healing nicely. We then heard more of the facts about the “Sanna’s Post Affair.” Apparently it could solely be attributed to the Officer in Charge of the Column as he did not provide proper orders to carefully reconnoitre the ground during the advance to the Boer positions holding the waterworks near Sanna’s Post. Supposedly the enemy had acquired information of our intention and line of approach long before we reached the scene of the ambush. As a result they had plenty of time to position their guns and mounted riflemen. If a fairly strong scouting party had been pushed well ahead, this ambush would not have been successful.
Our Squadron’s duty was to monitor our right flank which we did. In doing so, we successfully neutralised a large force of the enemy. Thus we prevented this force from cutting us off from the main column while at the same time, inflicting a large number of casualties on them and secured a few in doing so.
Hand written memoirs by AJ Montgomery
Photographs of AJ Montgomery supplied by Alan Derek Montgomery, grandson of AJ Montgomery