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 enlistment and training with the 10th Hussars in Ireland and England. When war was declared against the Boer Republics, the 10th Hussars were shipped to the Cape Colony where Arthur experiences the whole gamut of warfare. Initially it was conventional in that large opposing forces would clash but after the Boers’ defeat at Diamond Hill outside Pretoria, the war devolved into guerrilla hit-and-run type actions.
AJ’s original narrative has been edited for readability and grammar, sometimes substantially, but it still remains largely the voice of the author narrating his impressions, concerns and fears while providing vivid images of war.
Main picture: Painting of A.J. Montgomery of the 10th Hussars
On the 4th May 1897, I joined the 10th Royal Hussars at the age of 18 years and 19 days which day stands out in my memory very clearly, as I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to be unhappy anymore. Adventure called, and when the recruiting sergeant approached me whilst I was strolling along Whitehall, inviting me to have a drink to discuss the merits of the Infantry, Marines and Cavalry Regiments, he had me interested, especially in the Horse Regiments. Being a Lancer Sergeant himself, when the 16th Prince of Wales own Royal Hussars was mentioned as one of the Cavalry Regiments open to receive recruits. I decided to join that Regiment as I liked the title. We then left the little pub at the back of Whitehall – I forget the name of it – and went into the old Recruiting Office.
I went through a very thorough Medical Examination and also a brief educational test, filled in the usual particulars about my parents, address etc as well as work details and school attended. I then signed my name after swearing to serve my King and Country. On arriving home that evening and on informing my parents what I had done, I met with severe opposition from them. Charlie, my eldest brother, who was a Reservist from the 14th King’s Hussars, told me that after a month or so in the army, I would be asking my father to purchase my discharge, and then went into details of the hard life that he had experienced as a recruit. Adding to all this, my other two brothers tried to discourage me, but I was determined to go through with it.
Travelling to a new future
So, the following week found me travelling to Newbridge, Ireland via Holyhead in North Wales. After an uneventful rail journey from London, the sea trip was very interesting as it was my first with the three hours afloat being full of incidents and experiences new to me. Finding my way around the ship in the dark in a rough choppy sea made it dangerous for me to let go of the rails or anything stable to hold onto. At last I found a steward. He told me to follow him. We got down to a stuffy little salon where most of the passengers were regaling themselves with bottles of Dublin Stout and sandwiches. I felt inclined for something hot. I then found that hot mugs of coffee were being served. After drinking that, I felt much better. I then heard that we could rest in one of the spare bunks; so, I made my way to the sleeping quarters, dropped my little bundle of belongings that I had brought with me at the foot of the bunk and tried to sleep on the hard, thin mattress. But as the Irish Sea was giving us a rough time, I found myself nearly flung out of the bunk every now and then. I just gave it up and wandered up on deck again. It was also very stuffy with lots of passengers playing cards. Others were just talking and singing. So the fresh air on the deck was quite a relief.
Landing in Ireland
We docked at North Wall Quay in Dublin at about 6am. I was told that a Recruiting Sergeant would meet me there. I watched by the gangway for him and eventually asked a Policeman what I had better do as it had it was daybreak. He advised me to go to the Army Barracks. I wandered around Dublin asking for the Barracks and learnt that there was six of them, all situated in different parts of the city. One place that I went to had] a nice kind cook who gave me a hot breakfast of porridge, sausages and eggs. Thereafter he directed me to enquire at another Army Headquarters where was told to wait. About an hour later a big red-coated Sergeant “collected” me, remarking to his fold, “The lost sheep is found at last.” He had evidently overslept and had arrived at the docks about an hour and a half after I had asked the Dock Policeman what to do. He had told the Sergeant that he had seen me and directed me to Army Barracks in the City. Anyway, my Sergeant Escort seemed relieved after looking through my papers and making sure that I was the right recruit. On arriving by train at Newbridge barracks, I saw a cold stone building walled around by the same cold bleak looking stone. On we went to a large iron gate with a sentry box on the side and a sentry marching on his beat with a carbine at the support.
Induction into Army Life
My sergeant turned to me saying, “Come laddie. Straighten your back. Hold your head up. You’re in the Army now.” The sentry grinned at me, saying out of the corner of my mouth, “Now you’re for it, my lad.” I then heard the blast of the trumpet blowing a shrill call of some sort which gave me a thrill of pleasure though I was feeling tired with all that had happened since starting from London the previous morning. No sleep; the miles that I had walked in Dublin trying to find my sergeant, the strangeness of these harsh looking barracks, all added to my loneliness. Then I remembered my determination to go through with it. As my thoughts went back to my brother’s jeers and prediction that life would be too rough for me, I straightened my back, my head went up as I followed the sergeant to the Orderly Room and was then handed over to the Orderly Sergeant of the Regiment who was given my papers of enlistment by the Recruiting Sergeant, who with a few words of good wishes, bade me farewell. Then I was taken along to the Quartermaster’s Store, issued with some of my uniforms and bedding, helped by another trooper and allocated a bed at the end of a large barrack room with about 25 beds arranged along two sides with a trestle table running down the centre. All the beds were in perfect line; 3 Biscuits [mattresses] to each bed, one up and two down with the blankets and sheets folded all the same way. Each bed had a division to allow half to slide under when not in use which also gave me more room to move about. The space on the wall at the head of the beds had a line of shelves fixed to it to hold the Trooper’s Kits and Uniforms, Boots, Busbies, caps etc, and alongside each bed were Racks for the Carbines and Swords. Everything in the room seemed to be at attention and in perfect line. The tables were scrubbed white and there were also long forms made of wood and iron at each side of the tables. At both ends of the long line of tables, large round ration tins were placed. These tins were highly polished with the regiment’s crest outlined on the front. In the centre and side of the room was a large fireplace with iron fenders in front which were also highly polished. Under each bedstead on the floor were large wooden boxes with the number and name of the Trooper. This all conjured up a picture of rigid attention to cleanliness and order.
The Trooper who helped me to make up my bed and stow away my kit, was quite decent, and gave me a few tips regarding looking after myself and how to prevent stealing. He suggested that I “get a good padlock from the dry canteen and fix it on your box, mate!” According to him, that comes first as there is always someone in a troop who is on the “take” to lift anything that they can sell for booze. As the time was approaching dinner time, I could hear orders being shouted outside and trumpets sounded for dismiss. I was told by Dicky, who had helped me earlier, where to sit at the long table and suggested that I should sit by his side. He also offered to keep me posted on how to survive in the Army environment. With his assistance, I soon got into the routine of Army life after the first few days. I found that the food was rough and sometimes not enough, so I had to supplement it by spending some money at the Dry Canteen, and as we were only getting one shilling and tuppence a day, some of that being deducted by the paymaster for recreation and library expenses, I was quite broke. In addition, cleaning kit had to be bought as well as grooming kit, which soon depleted our pay completely.
Riding training commences
As I began to settle down, and get acquainted with the men in my Troop, the lonely feeling subsided. My first day at the riding school was full of incidents and I spent more time on the ground than my horse’s back. The method of teaching a man to ride in a Cavalry Regiment was of course learning how to mount and dismount quickly, and as our horses were bare of any saddles, except for a humbrah and a bridoon with the humbrah being held in place by a surcingle. As our horses were 16 to 17 hands high, this meant that a recruit had to be very agile in order to spring up onto its back. One could only be assisted by grasping the horse’s mane while holding the reins in one’s left hand. After the spring up with the right hand used to steady one’s balance while one’s right leg is swung across the horse’s back. After getting the knack of mounting, came the jogging motion of the trot. On the other hand, walking was not so difficult.
But once the Rough Riding Sergeant gave the order, “run or trot”, then it was a case of hanging on. First one rider rolled off his horse, then another and until perhaps half the ride of 12 recruits would be on the ground with riders frantically rolling clear of the horse’s hoofs. The Instructor would then be forced to stop the ride. All of this was accompanied by a new language that we were now learning which included a wonderful lot of swear words never before heard in civilian life nor seen in a dictionary.
As the weeks of riding, football, physical parade drill, as well as sword and carbine drill proceeded, and time passed by, I found myself getting keener. Simultaneously, as my efficiency improved, my training became more interesting. Stable work was rough. This meant not only grooming our horses, scrubbing stalls, each man had to clean the woodwork, mangers and hay racks by hand. They also had to scrub all metal parts not painted with brick dust which had been ground fine. Often we were taken away from finishing off our horses in order to draw forage. This sometimes meant carrying a 180 lb sack of oats or a bale of compressed hay of 200lb in weight on our backs. The distance covered from the storage area was 200 yards.
Promoted to using saddles
It was only when we displayed sufficient competence to ride well enough bareback to the satisfaction of our Instructor Sergeant, that saddles were fitted onto our horses. We now found out that sitting on a slippery saddle without stirrups, especially at a trot, required perfect balance as well as grip by the inside of one’s legs. Once again many recruits were getting absolutely exhausted by continually having to grip with their legs otherwise they just rolled off their horses. I forget how many times that I fell to the ground and dodged the hooves of the horses coming from behind me. Our legs again got very chaffed and sore. Some recruits had to report sick repeatedly before their riding course finished. Each time on returning from a few days’ rest in hospital, back they had to go to a lower class in the school. Of course, this meant probably a week or more riding bareback as there were always new recruits arriving. There were about 8 rides: 2 bareback, 2 with stripped saddles, 2 using their stirrups down on saddles and 2 with full bridles and bridoon with wallets strapped on. Our great ambition was to get into the 4th ride because of the comfort in sitting on a saddle with more security.
I suffered to a great extent with the others getting the usual saddle sores, but I took a tip from one of the old soldiers which was to apply pipeclay mixed with a little salt to my legs after washing them with warm soapy water every night. Due to this treatment, I had not been forced to report sick. It appears that this treatment hardens the skin and prevents scabs from forming. During these hard weeks of riding drill and dismounted training, cleaning up kit in the evenings, allowed us no time for any leisure. I slept well and had begun to get a feeling of fitness and well-being. The result was that my appetite increased in excess of my allowed rations. As a consequence I had to supplement it by spending some or most of my pay as well as the few shillings from savings that I had brought with me.
One day, whilst on fatigue duty in Inenage where the Passing Out recruits were allowed to practice under the eyes of the S.M. Riding Instructor, I saw, for the first time, some wonderful equestrian feats, such as Tent Pegging, Heads and Post, Lemon Cutting, Tilting the Ring, jumping all kinds of fences and Poles and Obstacles. These added to my keenness to become a good rider.
My Troop Horse was a fine, trained, drill animal, a black of about 16 hands and a “terror” to keep clean which took me a long time to “pass” each day at grooming time. Blacks are always difficult as the white scurf shows up. It was about this time that I began to find that muscles were forming all over my body and limbs where they had been – I expect – just waiting to be developed by some hard exercise. Now after nearly two months of really hard work in the stables, drill and P.T., I began to feel a sense of fitness and strength.
I have not mentioned our canteen yet in my memoir. The dry canteen supplied us with all that we required in the way of cleaning gear. Furthermore, we could also purchase a penny’s worth of jam, cheese, sweets, buns et cetera. The Wet Canteen supplied just beer and stout at 1½d a pint. It was the custom for four pals to buy a gallon for 1/- and then take turns to buy it. This was the social way of drinking. Notwithstanding this, there wasn’t much chance of drunkenness among the recruits as we were not paid enough to splash out in that way.
The Regiment had a Reserve Squadron on horse in Newbridge which was composed of Headquarters and recruits, with A, B & C Squadrons stationed at the Curragh about 5 miles west of Newbridge which is about 30 miles west of Dublin. A Field Artillery Battery was also occupying part of these Barracks with a section of A.S.C. and A.M.E. with a small hospital away in the hills.
On day early in July 1897, orders were read out on parade that the Regiment was to pack up and proceed to England for manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain. After that we were to be stationed at Canterbury.
Relocation to Shorncliffe
The Reserve Squadron proceeded to Shorncliffe. All was bustle and hard work packing up. The recruits lost their horses to the trained squadrons, and in a short time, found ourselves in bungalow type barracks at Shorncliffe. The absence of a Riding School for most was expected to be welcomed as a cushy time with no stables or grooming, but we received a shock when we found that we had to be kept drilling, performing musketry exercises and undergoing physical training [infantry style] which was much more exacting and for longer periods. The sword exercises on the drill square was taken by a Sergeant Instructor in Fencing with a nickname of “Chinky” due to his being very much like a Chinaman in appearance. He was feared and hated by all as he was such a martinet. Furthermore, he was the cause of a good few desertions from the Regiment. The names that he called us were too awful to write down here. But, “Oh, what a man!” Tough as they came. Among the Drill Masters, he certainly knew everything about how to train young men and also how to use a sword. Then we had to go through a course of “single stick” during our P.T. training, being great fun.
Whilst at Shorncliffe, my brother Charlie came to see me, visited the Sergeant’s Mess and I think that his visit there helped me a little more to appreciate the work of my instructors.
Relocation to Canterbury
In September, our Regiment took over the Cavalry Barracks at Canterbury. We joined them and continued with our mounted training, starting all over again from where we left off at Newbridge. As the Cavalry Riding Establishment had been at this location for many years, we saw how the riding instructors from different Regiments trained under the specialists from every Regiment; NCOs from the Life Guards Dragoons, Lancers, Hussars Army Service Corps Horse Artillery and even from Regiments overseas. Of course, it was a plum of a job considered to be a N.C.O. Instructor and to wear the Gold Spur over the Stripes. But what a tough course one had to go through to qualify. In Canterbury’s Cavalry Barracks, our quarters were over the Horses’ Stables, so we always had the strong harsh stable smell with us.
As I began to be efficient in my Riding and passed out from a 2nd Class Recruit to a 1st Class one, by the end of 1897 I was allowed to use my sword in all mounted exercises. Recruits from Shorncliffe had passed our Musketry Course at Hythe then later we had to pass a Trained Soldiers’ Musketry Course at Lydd. As we proved ourselves in Drill and Riding, so we were allowed to wear our full uniform and also allowed pass and leave time. All our uniforms had to be fitted and passed by one of our officers before being worn on any parade. It was made by the Regimental Tailor and his assistants and was issued to us as follows: Hussar Busby and brass link chin strap with jelly bag – yellow and blue ornamental piece attached to the side of the Busby – a black and white hair plume, yellow cords attached to the collar of the tunic and Busby, really meant for in case it fell off, then the tunic in blue fine cloth with yellow corded braid across the front and edges. Two pairs of blue cloth riding breeches with a double yellow braid down the sides, Jack boots, spurs, tight fitting blue overalls with double yellow braid on the sides with straps for wearing with our Wellington boots, small parade spurs to fit, a blue serge drill tunic with silver plaited epaulettes on the shoulders, flat brass buttons – the other full dress tunic has ball brass buttons on – and patch pockets. This is the favourite dress for short leave and is worn with a pill box cap.
Later, we were issued with scarlet side or forage caps with a silver-plated Regimental crest on it. [This was the Prince of Wales feathers with a brass scroll and the name of the Regiment inscribed]. Then for some duty occasions, we were issued with what is known as a shell jacket with 12 brass buttons down the front. Some people call these bum peezers. Included in our kit issue were two shirts with grey backs, two under vests, two long underpants, three pairs of woollen socks, Balaclava cap and a long-sleeved knitted cardigan. Next came the working kit: blue serge slacks, black army bluchers, two pairs of boots, white canvas gym shoes, white kid gloves, white leather pouch belt worn around the chest when on special or orderly duty, together with a black patent leather pouch and Regimental Crest fixed on. Finally came the sword belt and sling in white buff with the white buff sword knot attached to the sword hilt, a curved cavalry sword or sabre and scabbard and Martin Henry Carbine 303.
Then the saddlery: one saddle with wallets for carrying our small kit on the march with a strap, bridle bit and bridoon with reins, white plaited head rope, girths and surcingle, holdall to carry kit on the back of the saddle. As you can guess, we had plenty to keep clean and it had always ready for inspection by our Sergeant Master.
At the beginning of 1898, I had been passed as fit and efficient to be classed and recognised as a 1st Class Recruit. I had passed all the dismounted tests in P.T., sword and carbine marching and formation Drills, cold shoeing, that is being able to attach a fitted horse shoe onto one’s own horse as well as Horse Management in the stable and field. We had plenty of experience in scrubbing our barrack room and tables and forms by taking my turn as Room Orderly. We all had to do it as our turn came in the troop. Our turn on Ration fatigue in the troop came. That and forage fatigue were weekly events for us all.
Squadron and Mounted Drill
Now came my turn for learning Squadron and Mounted Troop Drill on the big Drilling Common for horses outside our Barracks. We trotted and galloped, forming line, wheeling into column, half echelons, then came the galloping to targets on the Rifle Ranges, dismounting and firing off lots of ammo. Tent Pegging with swords, Heads and Post over the Jumps, Fitting the Ring, Lemon Cutting etc. Most of this was practised by the 1st Class recruits to ensure a perfectly firm seat in the saddle. This training continued until May 1898, one year exactly after enlisting, at which time I was passed out as a fully trained Light Cavalry Trooper by our Colonel. Now I was allowed many more privileges and, for a week or two, could take things easier. I also attended our gymnasium taking voluntary subjects in the evenings which many of us appreciated and took advantage of. We could get boxing lessons, do wrestling and indoor sports, such as foil fencing with full masks and jackets, stick combat as well as soccer games. There were always N.C.O. Instructors present who helped us in all these disciplines.
Then came spring training. I was now posted to the No 2 Troop A Squadron and took my place as a trained man, given my own horse and saddlery and a stall in the stable of my troop responsible for all my own equipment. Every morning at 8am, we paraded for a full day’s training in Regimental Drill all over the Kent countryside. Sometimes whilst riding all day in the saddle, we took part in small sham fights and generally came back to barracks at about 3pm, tired out and hungry. I learnt a lot in those days of how to take care of my horse and myself.
There was not much time for going outside the Barracks. I had spent a short 5 days’ leave at home just after passing out and enjoyed wearing my fine smart uniform, visiting friends and relatives. No recruit was allowed leave until he had passed out of his training in those days. Dicky Stone and Polly Passett were my friends and in the 2nd Troop with me from earlier on. Dicky had about 3½ years more service than I did whereas Polly had a few months more. Both were Cockneys. I had grown to be quite a muscular lad by now. I did enjoy a bout of boxing with other men. I had a few hidings too. As a result, I learnt how to take the hard knocks but I also gave them. The hard training, good plain food and always being in the open air, seemed to suit me. Some of our Recruits had failed and the principal reason was that they would never make cavalrymen. The riding tests proved it.
As a consequence, quite a few had been reassigned to Infantry or the Ordnance Corps. Some were pleased, whereas others were disappointed at not passing muster as cavalrymen. Most of them were not physically built to become riders.
One morning we saw in the Regimental Orders that our Annual Tournament was scheduled for a few weeks hence. Dicky, Polly and I discussed what events we should enter. Dicky said that he would attempt Tent Pegging as well as Heads and Posts. Polly applied for Mounted Combat and Mounted Wrestling. I also entered for Mounted Combat and Tilting the Ring. The preliminaries began. I won my first bout of which I was reminded for a period due to sore bruises along the ribs. In this event, the Troop managed to win but lost in competing in the first round of the Squadron Preliminaries by a fierce corporal who nearly unseated me with a clean thrust in the chest. If it had been a real sword, it would have gone clean through me. He was too clever and well experienced in combat. He had feinted at my head, pretending to ease his horse next to me, swinging in quickly and before I could take his sword on my guard, the point got me cleanly. On that basis, I was out of it. Fair and square.
Polly was also eliminated in Mounted Combat and also wrestling on horseback, losing his second bout. Dicky lost at Tent Pegging but was included with a few others for the semi-finals of the Heads and Posts.
I found out that by winning my Troop bout, I was now allowed to wear the badge of Crossed Swords in braid on the left lower sleeve. Did I feel proud! We saw some fine feats of horsemanship in the finals of our Tournament. The Victoria Cross Race caused lots of merriment. Six mounted men had to gallop from a starting flag , ride over a fence, whilst hidden men fired blank rounds at them , then over a wide ditch also under fire, to a few yards on where they had to dismount, lay down and fire their carbines at targets, pick up supposed wounded men, played by dummies, sling them over their saddles, mount and hold onto the dummy, gallop back over the ditch while fencing all the time under fire and then go back to the starting flag. The judges gave a first and second to the men who had scored the best hits on targets and first in with their dummy. It was all good fun as well as being a very tough competition.
Relocation to Aldershot
There was a fine musical ride by a picked Squadron of Riders while the band played appropriate tunes. All the spectators from the Town showed their appreciation by cheering the different events. It was a lovely day to be remembered. Then came the news of the Regiment moving again. This time it was to Aldershot. We rode all the way, our heavy baggage followed behind while we marched with a full pack on. Maidstone, Redhill, Guildford to Aldershot, nearly 100 miles, camping at three places on the way, fortunately in fine weather. Military training commenced again as this was the largest military training depot in the United Kingdom. Starting with a full Cavalry Brigade and two batteries of Horse Artillery, within in a few weeks we were drilling as a Cavalry Division. This training was held in conjunction with an Infantry Division. This was held on an enormous stretch of flat country called Salisbury Plain. We lived in tents, really roughing it in all kinds of weather during the summer and autumn of 1899.
War in South Africa
The old soldiers, whom we spoke to in the Canteen, started spreading rumours of war in South Africa being imminent. There was not much news in the newspapers that could indicate that events were serious enough to result in war. Meanwhile a little fighting had been in progress for some time on the North West Frontier of India.
The Regiment returned to their Barracks in Aldershot. We now had to make up for the weeks when we had been roaming over the country, round and over Amesbury, Stonehenge and Salisbury. That meant that “spit and polish” was required on our neglected saddlery and equipment after weeks of semi-neglect. It was really arduous work to get the equipment back to their normal barrack shine. Moreover, we had been sleeping on the ground through some awfully wet days which resulted in the sun hardening our leather work and generally rusting up the buckles, sword scabbards et cetera.
The 10th was nicknamed “The Shiners” as they already had a long tradition of being the smartest turned out Regiment in the Cavalry. We had heard plenty of lectures and inspirational talks from our officers on the history of the 10th Royal Hussars dating back to long before the Peninsular Wars and onwards, in India, Crimea, Afghanistan et cetera and the old traditions. So it was now hard grafting, working to get back to our normal smartness. Kit inspections, saddle cleaning and inspection, arms et cetera.
On morning while on parade, I was summonsed to report to my Squadron Commander who asked me whether I would accept a promotion to Lance Corporal. I accepted with thanks and so began a period of a little more responsibility. Doing orderly work and guard duties formed part of my new job. Furthermore, I had to keep a roster for the troop of all kinds of duties and fatigues. I began to find that I had aptitude for it and in the process, I gained more confidence in myself that I had the knack of controlling men in many of their duties.
Then on the 11th October 1899, a “Bombshell” was dropped on us all. War had indeed broken out in South Africa. Rumours abounded that we were to be one of the units in the 10th Cavalry Division to go. We could sense the atmosphere all around us. In the canteen the men were like a beehive buzzing. Dicky and Polly of my section were one day sitting in the Reading Room chatting with me about it all. “Now Monto” – AJ Montgomery’s nickname – “What are these Boers like? You’ve read about these things more than Polly & I” In all likelihood, they were aware of my liking for reading all kinds of library books in our room. I was known as a bit of a bookworm. I had not long since read a book describing some of the “Kaffir Wars” as they were known then, so I replied that in the book that I had recently read that the Boers were fine rifle shots in addition to being splendid horsemen. I went on at some length about what I could remember about the earlier Boer War in 1881 and of the fighting around Bronkhorstspruit in the Transvaal where our troops had been ambushed. And so it went on. Rumours and talk until one day several weeks later, we were paraded in the Riding School for a horse inspection. At this juncture, I overhead an Officer claim that some of the older horses were not fit for active service. This confirmed our suspicions that our officers had prior knowledge of our being sent on service. This news soon swirled round and round like a Catherine wheel but the rank and file were not told anything definite about the intended plans. In the face of a paucity of information, rumours abounded and when facts and reality got short shrift. Amid the tumult of uncertainty and excitement, the lure of impending battle and evoking images of battle, the men’s steps assumed more purpose.
Then in early November 1899, we were off. We had all been fitted out with Khaki and were issued with lots of new and younger horses from the Remount Camp. I kept my Trooper, a horse of about 16 hands, a chestnut of about 5 years old of which I had grown very fond.