A.J. Montgomery: Part 9 – Through the Cape Colony hunting the Cape Rebels

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 hunting down the Boer rebels in the Cape Colony including the stunning capture of Commandant Scheepers

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 images of war.

 Main picture: Painting of A.J. Montgomery of the 10th Hussars 

We trekked through the southern Transvaal to Potchefstroom. From there, we moved down the Free State following De Wet’s Commando which eluded our small columns for months. Whenever we received information that he was raiding around a certain area, we would dash off after him, travelling day and night, tiring our horses out, only to find that he had once again slipped through our columns. Our Generals tried all ways to confront De Wet, but the Boers remained elusive and we were unable to engage them in battle. On another occasion we rode hard for two days, supposedly in an attempt to drive him onto the Harts Infantry Brigade, and another column of Mounted Infantry, near Bethlehem. But when we closed up with the Hart’s Column, we discovered that the Boers had slipped through a neck in the mountains during the night.

I cannot remember the number of times during Broadwood’s and later during General Knox’s time that we were engaged in small patrol actions during this period. They were countless. Knox who commanded our Brigade, was reputed to be a fine Cavalry Leader. When General Broadwood left the command of the 2nd Brigade, my troop had started with Lieutenant Milbanke VC, who was our leader at the time. Later our leaders were first Lieutenant Billy Cardogan, then Meade and still later, Tommy Lister, son of Lord Ribblesdale.

Boers with Mauser rifles purchased from Germany

Captain Shearman was now our Squadron Leader, “Tubby” our Staff Sergeant and Sergeant Gordon our Troop Sergeant. I was promoted to Lance Corporal at the beginning of 1901. The implication of this promotion was that I was in charge of a section of 2nd Troop, about six men. We had certainly changed out of all recognition from the smartly uniformed cavalry men that we had been at the beginning of the war. By now, all the men had lost or discarded their pith helmets and had adopted felt hats as a substitute. Their uniforms were bleached and discoloured by the sun and rain, the putties like rags, boots well-worn and soles “more holy than righteous” and the louse was still our intimate enemies. In fact, we were more like tramps on horseback. Our horses were of all breeds but thin and hardy. Sometimes we could get them a good feed of lucerne and mielies but every time when we found some good grazing, which was not too often, we made sure of giving them a good feed.

British emergency ration pack used in the Boer War

By now Field Marshal Lord Kitchener was the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces after Lord Roberts had returned to England. Kitchener reorganised our military formations from large columns into more mobile type of fast-moving mounted commandos, similar in some respects to the Boers. Another of his innovations was to establish lines of blockhouses across the country, covering all vital points such as rail junctions and bridges. This kept large numbers of infantry scattered all over the country occupying and guarding these lines of blockhouses.

We now moved further south along the Basutoland border passing through the Whytte Bergen, crossing the Caledon River a few times while on the heels of a large commando. A few early morning patrol actions kept us in the alert. One misty morning while I was acting as advance patrol well ahead of the Squadron, my section of five men, with Harry Lammie and I leading, and the others about 50 yards behind, came to a narrow defile. It was then that we heard “crack, crack, weeee” as bullets smashed against the rocks. I shouted to those behind us to take cover. Both Harry and I swerved our horses swiftly behind a large boulder on the left of the road and dismounted. Handing my reins over to him, I crawled over a small rock to get a view of the road ahead. Through the mist I heard the whiz and crack as a bullet hit the rocks nearby and ricochet off. A movement caught my eye, so I fired a number of quick shots and then I heard horses galloping away on the hard road in front. As the mist was clearing, I could now see the type of country that we had come to. Broken boulders strewn everywhere, rising steeply from the road and then dropping steeply down to the right but it was much too steep for our horses to have ridden down. This slope ended in the valley with a bush covered river bed.

Boers leaving Pretoria for the front during the Boer War

The firing in front opened up again, the bullets whizzing over our heads. Simultaneously the crack, crack of the rest of my patrol returning fire from the position at which they had halted, could be heard. The light in front had improved as the rising sun burnt off the mist. The sound of a mounted man caught my ear, as my Troop Sergeant galloped up the road. He dismounted, keeping his horse behind cover and then crept up to me. I reported that between 10 or 20 of the enemy were blocking our advance by holding a position on each side of the road about 250 yards ahead. He ordered me to hold out where we were located. He then withdrew past my other three men who were holding some higher ground to our rear, where he remounted his steed. He retired to report to our Squadron Leader. A few minutes later, the rest of our 2nd Troop came up to our position and crawled over and up the rocky ground to our left and right, drawing fire from the front. Our orders were to concentrate our rifle fire at a ridge of broken ground about 300 yards in front where our C.O. had observed the enemy in position through his binoculars. Then the 1st and 4th Troops appeared in a cloud of dust galloping from the rear right through our line, passing our men. Then we received a fusillade of shots as the enemy opened fire on them, leaving a few men on the ground.

Black Watch after the Highland Brigade’s attack at the Battle of Magersfontein on 11th December 1899 in the Boer War. Picture by Frank Feller

These two troops went right down the road until they came to a commanding position about 500 yards in front of us and to our left. From this position they were able to open fire on the flank of the enemy’s position. A troop of B Squadron now came up and took over our positions, covering our advance as we now received orders to join the remainder of our squadron.

We came out of cover at a gallop heading for the ridge, where we joined up with the rest, facing a hail of bullets spattering amongst us during the shirt sharp gallop. But as we were well-extended, nobody was hit. Heavy rifle fire was now coming from across the dry river bed over on our right flank. In a quick glance as we moved, I spotted the three troops of 13th Squadron advancing across the valley towards the river bed which was the extreme right flank of the enemy’s position, just over the rising ground across the valley.

THE SECOND BOER WAR, 1899-1902 (Q 71958) Unit of the British cavalry in the field. The soldier wearing a hat in the right foreground is very likely one of the Rimington’s Guides or Tigers. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205316848

My attention was now wholly consumed by my instructions from my troop officer. These ordered me to take my section to the extreme left and occupy a small rocky koppie in order to act as a fighting outpost. As he pointed out the place, I noticed that the intervening ground of approximately 600 yards was open and flat. Then summonsing my men, I notified them exactly what we had to do.

We galloped across the open ground expecting a hot reception, but our squadron kept up a blistering fire, which must have kept them fully occupied behind cover. We covered the distance, dismounted, and then climbed to the top of a small koppie. From there, we possessed a commanding view of the countryside in front of us. We could distinctly see the road on which we had been travelling which stretched away to the valley and then disappeared over the skyline.

Armed Afrikaners on the veldt near Ladysmith during the second Boer War, circa 1900

We had a front-row-seats view of our two squadrons advancing right up to the Boer positions over the river bed. Then we heard a fusillade of rifle fire and then silence for a while and then saw about 150 Boers galloping at full tilt up the road. I heard afterwards that Boers left behind 10 wounded as well as 3 dead. The ambulance picked up the wounded and buried the dead on the spot. On the other hand, we lost 5 men dead and 8 wounded, one of which was from my Troop and who sustained a nasty wound in the shoulder.

Earlier on, when coming up to reinforce my advance patrol, we were forced to shoot 3 of our horses but a few others had only suffered flesh wounds. My section escaped unscathed from that “short action” which I found out had only taken two hours. Our advance then continued for the rest of that day and camped about 14 miles from where we had been held up.

Boer War

For the next two weeks, we were involved in numerous similar small skirmishes. After crossing the Orange and Caledon Rivers, our advance now took us into the north eastern corner of the Cape Colony near Aliwal North. On and on we went passing through various towns such as Molteno and Graaf Reinet. En route we were involved in various small patrol actions such as skirmishes, sometimes even at night in order to catch up with another mobile column. Often now we were living off the land. At times there was plenty of food whereas at other times we just had our Bully Beef and hard biscuits. To vary our monotonous army rations, we occasionally had a duck or chicken and sometimes suckling pig. I became quite adept at making chupaties, and even bread, but only if we were camping for a few days. In the case of bread, we would use an antheap as an oven. I also found that Eno’s Fruit Salts was quite a good substitute for Baking Powder which was unobtainable. We even experimented with baking a leg of mutton in an antheap oven which proved to be an improvement on the eternal frying pan method.

As we moved south westwards around the Oudtshoorn and Uniondale districts, we were involved in a few sharp actions, being caught in a short rear guard ambush at the latter area. In these actions, we lost several men, mules and horses. Early one morning I came face to face with a mounted man. As soon as I employed the usual procedure of requesting from him the name of his unit, he swung his rifle towards me and fired point-blank at me. If I had not instinctively ducked flat on my horse, the bullet would have hit me in the chest. Instead it went straight through my bandolier. Immediately he turned his horse about and went off in the opposite direction at full gallop. Just before he reached a bend in the road, I fired a couple of shots at him. In the process, I may have hit him, but I cannot be sure. This action evolved into yet another small skirmish which soon fizzled out when the main body of our Squadron started our usual outflanking manoeuvres.

The months were passing, and the war was dragging on.  We were becoming disgruntled with it as we were now at the end of 1901. What really annoyed us is that we had not had a chance of a rest.  During the course of conversation with the Colonial Volunteer Corps, we were enlightened that many had been to their homes for a few month’s rest. After this break, they had then signed up again for 6 months or the duration of the war. Some had even rested for up to a year before signing up again. In addition, they were drawing 10/- a day, whereas the Regular Army Troops were paid 1/- a day with N.C.O.s earning just a few pence more and no chance of a day’s leave.

The only respite from actual front-line fighting came when we were compelled to obtain fresh new horses or new kit, as our old kit had usually worn completely out. Of course, many men had fallen out through some debility or exhaustion and had been ordered by medical doctors to be sent to a convalescent camp to be treated and rested. Later when they rejoined us, they would inform us what a wonderful time that they had experienced. Dicky Stone was one of them. He rejoined us by train at Oudtshoorn with some others of the 10th Hussars.

British soldiers cross a river during the Boer War circa 1900

Harry, Polly and Wally and I kept going to the end without requiring recuperation. These three from my section had been with me from the time that I took charge of my section and we were a happy little community, sharing all things including the contents of the letters that we occasionally received from our friends and relations from England. By discussing the letters amongst ourselves, we were aware of each other’s home affairs which kept us bound to each other and also provided us with lots of things to discuss.

For instance, Harry’s father owned a string of barges on the River Thames from which he made a fairly good living transporting goods of all kinds between Gravesend, Gillingham and Chatham. Apparently Harry wanted to join his father’s business when he left the Army. On the other hand, Wally Simpson’s father owned a greengrocer’s shop in Chapel Street, London. His ambition was to open another shop to increase the business. As Wally was the oldest soldier and only had to serve for another year before being transferred to the Reserve, he was longing to get back to civvy street. He often spoke about his job assisting his father in buying and selling fruit and vegetables at 4am from Covent Garden. He was compelled to work hard and even late every night especially on Saturdays.

Dicky Stone was a bricklayer’s labourer when he joined up. He often explained to the others about the hazards of this type of work as one was in and out of work as work depended upon the availability of contracts. As competition was so keen nowadays, Dicky would have preferred to stay in the Army saying, “You know mates. I shall be certain of not being out of work here in the 10th. Even this old war won’t get me down.” So you can guess that we had lots to chat about around the camp fire in between the action. All of them were fine dependable pals.

Boer soldier Gysbert Keet via Carol Hardijzer

I cannot recall all of the smaller and larger patrol and outpost actions up to the capture of Commandant Scheepers who had been looting and ravaging the area around the Great Swartberg, Calitzdorp, Prince Albert and Ladysmith areas right down to Montague. Our orders were to follow him and ultimately capture him. This we ultimately did early one morning in the Laingsburg District at a farm where he and his men had been holed up to rest.

Tommy Lister, who had been our troop leader longer than any of our previous Lieutenants, now rejoined us. Unfortunately he had been lightly wounded in one of our rear guard actions just after crossing the Orange River into the Cape but had kept up with us by riding in a Cape Cart carrying our emergency ammunition. This happened until his buttock wound had healed.

Tommy took our troop right up close to the farm during the night after leaving all our horses behind under cover with our no 3s horse holders. Creeping along very slowly following Tommy, we noticed a small outbuilding about 30 yards ahead. I then saw a man sitting on a rock with a pipe in his mouth. It was the light of his smouldering tobacco, as he drew on it, that attracted my attention to him. I touched my Troop Leader’s shoulders, and as he turned around to me, I whispered, “See the sentry sitting there, Sir.” As the dawn was more than half an hour away, it was still very dark and silent. “Yes, Corporal. Now I can see him. You cover him. I must get him before he gets us.” So I trained my rifle on him. The rest of my section and our troop were laying down well behind us and as silent as the trees around us. At this moment, Tommy left me, skirting around the low bushes to my right to get behind the sentry. I lay there covering him, hoping that I would not have to shoot him as that would give the Boers time to escape away with their horses.

Boer soldier F P du Plessis via Carol Hardijzer

Then as I watched in the dark, I heard a thud and then discerned the tall figure of Tommy signal to me to come and join him where he was. I spotted the sentry laying on the ground. “Now Corporal. Bring your men up here very quietly.” Retracing my steps, I told my men to follow me. Then at the little outhouse which Tommy had explored and found empty, my Troop Leader then explained his plan to the men. The other three sections were to station themselves at points near the windows, sides and back in readiness to open fire. Then he ordered a man to guard the prisoner at the outhouse. As we moved to the front door of the large farmhouse, Tommy with his Luger pistol in his hand, and Harry following on behind, found the door. At intervals I could hear horses stamping and the usual noises of a large number of horses feeding. As Tommy found the door open to his touch, we both crept in, telling Harry to guard the door.

Cabinet Card by Victoria West based photographer GH Church of Penkop Ralph Kruger

I will always remember entering that large living room. In the faint light of early morning, I saw many of the enemy sleeping in all positions on the floor and the three beds. On Tommy turning to me, holding his nose with his fingers, he grinned and commented, “Whew! How they do smell!!” It was a warm spot for us and his calmness helped me to keep cool in this exciting moment.

Tommy shook the fellow occupying the large bed who he assumed was their leader. He was correct. When he sat up and saw the muzzle of a pistol pointing at his head and me with my rifle trained on his other men, he raised up his arms and exclaimed. “Alle magtig! We’re caught. I surrender!” The other men on the floor were now waking up. I called Harry and we started collecting all the rifles. Then Tommy told them to get up and stand still and then exclaimed, “I have 10 rounds in this pistol. If any of you try anything, I won’t hesitate to shoot.” We were lucky. They looked too surprised to attempt anything. I called for more men to come and guard the prisoners. Corporals of no 1, 3 & 4 sections all came up. As the Boers filed out, I counted 32 of them. No 3 troop now came up to assist. Later I heard later that No 4 Troop had captured 15 Boers at another small farm about a mile away.

I saw the sentry who Tommy had knocked out with the butt of his Luger being attended to. He was now wearing a bandage from Trooper Stone’s First Aid kit, wound around his head. The man who our troop officer had pulled up from his bed, proved to be Commandant Scheepers. Our commando style operation had prevented the further raids on the main railway line to Frasersburg Road and Touws River junction and all the area south of it. But what a hard trek it had been climbing over the mountains between Prince Albert, Seven Weeks Poort and the Swartberg Pass! All clothes and boots were worn right out, and our horses were skin and bones. To supplement our meagre rations, we had been living off the land for some time.

Nurse during the South African War via Carol Hardijzer

For a few days, we refitted at Laingsburg Siding. I shall always remember walking my horse up to a smartly dressed soldier on sentry duty at a blockhouse near the railway and asking him what the name of the place was. He replied, “What mob are you?” When I replied that we were the 10th Prince of Wales Own Royal Hussars, he gaped at me, and then answered me, “What are you lot of tramps? Cavalrymen of British Regulars?”

Yes, Mate,” I replied. “Us tramps have just captured Scheepers and all his Commando, so you won’t have any more trouble around this district.” Then I turned my horse around and caught up with my troop. On telling my section what the so smartly dressed sentry had called us, we then realised and readily admitted that we were indeed a rough looking lot. Greasy ragged riding breeches, floppy felt hats and not a decent pair of putties to be seen amongst us. Our boots were worn to a whitey grey colour and full of holes. Our leather bandoliers were scuffed and worn and craved a little candle soap. In any case, over the past 2 to 3 months, we never had the chance or time to try to clean our kit or even ourselves. It would have been a waste of time attempting to cleaned up as we were sleeping out everywhere, scrounging for food, climbing over rocky koppies continually and there could be no break for a rest whilst on Scheepers’ tracks.

Now we made up for it with plenty of everything for a few days. Then we were off again under Major Kavanagh, who was now in command of the 2nd Squadron which now comprised about 250 men with their horses as well as a few extra pack horses to carry rations. Leaving the Laingsburg District, we trekked slowly through the Hex Rover Mountains and onto Clanwilliam and Van Rhynsdorp districts where two chaps by the name of Maritz and Kritzinger were raiding and sniping at convoys as well as at the railway.

Christmas had passed in the usual manner; an extra portion of rum and some extra jam and cheese was issued where possible. I have really forgotten to mention that we did receive a very good strong proof rum when our quartermaster could carry it among our other stores in the Cape Cart. The ration was almost a large table spoonful. During the first few months on the trek during 1900, I could not abide it but later when we were wet and cold at nights, I found that it offered great relief and solace.

A British armoured train during the Boer War

It was during the beginning of 1902 that we arrived in the western part of the Cape Colony and once again saw the sea after a period of two years inland. Our Commander allowed us to give our horses a dip in the surf, which we all did. It certainly also did the horses a lot of good as it strengthened their legs.

From now onwards, we operated against these small bands of guerrilla commandos, capturing some and killing and wounding the others. Finally, at the end of May came the armistice. We marched through Grey’s Pass escorting a few hundred Boers into the huge camp which was ready for them at Porterville. When riding in, I was amazed to see the masses of tents and troops already camped there. Then it became apparent that all the Mobile Mounted Columns which had been operating in this area, had been concentrated here. These were the 12th and 16th Lancers, C.M.P., C.P. and many other South African Mounted Infantry Regiments as well as Dominion troops.

As we now could take things easy and rest, organised mounted sports were arranged in order to keep the troops occupied. My wrestling on horse back team won a little prize in the finals after three stiff bouts. Tent Pegging, Head and Posts and other sports attracted many participants. As our horses were now being fed good fodder, they immediately recovered some of their condition. They too seemed to enjoy the change from the rough trekking.

After a few weeks in camp, the Medical Officer discovered that I, amongst many others, was suffering from bilharzia. One morning, the Regimental Orders, read by the Orderly Sergeant, notified us that all officers, N.C.O.s and Privates of the Regiment who had remained with the 10th Hussars right through the war, from the day of sailing from England were to parade at 10am on the next morning. We were all ordered to be smart in our best kit so that we could be photographed. Out of 750 who had sailed from Birkenhead on the 5th November 1899, there were only 62 from the whole Regiment in that photograph. The many who were despatched periodically in drafts to bring the Regiment to full strength, were not included. I cannot recall how many replacements were received from time to time nor can I remember how many men sent home prematurely suffering from enteric and dysentery.

At about the end of July 1902, we were shipped back to England.

So ended my period of Active Service in the 10th Royal Hussars with my total service being 5 years and 3 months.

Sources

Hand written memoirs by AJ Montgomery

Photographs of AJ Montgomery supplied by Alan Derek Montgomery, grandson of AJ Montgomery


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