A.J. Montgomery: Part 7 – From the Vaal to the Battle of Diamond Hill

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 Diamond Hill north east of Pretoria in the Transvaal.

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 crossed the Vaal at Parys without much opposition and pushed on into the Transvaal where we found some grass lands and grazing for our horses and cattle.

At dawn one morning several days later as we neared Johannesburg, the dry veld grass was on fire. Apparently the Boers had set it alight to impede our advance. Our horses were rather skittish at first to face the lines of grass fire but soon overcame their fear by picking out the openings between and galloped through until we got beyond it.

British troops crossing the drift – Technorama Museum Vereeniging

For the first time we saw the mine dumps of the Rand in the distance showing up white like snow hills. Our Brigade, led by Brigadier General Broadwood, moved fast to some high grass ridges where we were halted by some rifle fire. We deployed to each flank, dismounted, then no’s 3 of each troop took the horses back under cover while the rest of us lay down to return the fire. I well remember my Troop Officer, Lieutenant Milbanke, strolling along just behind us, calmly giving us the range to fire with his riding whip under his arm while the bullets whished over our heads. He seemed to live a charmed life.

British infantry crossing a stream

Major Onslow, the A Squadron Commander, came across to our position after we had been firing for half an hour. I overheard him instruct our Troop Leader that we would be withdrawing a troop at a time in 10-minute intervals. Our troop would once again act as rear guard by holding on to the last. Only then would we move back to our right towards the farm that we had passed earlier. With that he galloped off with his orderly in tow.

I soon noticed that the firing on each flank had ceased as our 1st, 3rd and 4th Troops withdrew whereupon our Troop Leader extended No 2 Troop further along the flanks and gave us orders to maintain independent fire at the ridge 300 yards ahead where the enemy riflemen were located. At last orders were received by us to dash down to our horses, mount and gallop off. We caught up with our Regiment and continued with our march while a few artillery batteries were firing at long range at the positions held by the Boers.

Overturned train in Pretoria

We skirted the town and continued our long march to Pretoria which we entered a few days later. It was here that Lord Roberts, who was overall commander of all the Troops, gave us a pep talk, particularly praising the Cavalry Brigades’ work in completing the task so quickly and successfully. We were now afforded a period of rest after we entered the camp.

It was here that I met up with my brother Charlie, a sergeant in the 14th Hussars in the large Cavalry camp of the 1st Brigade. We had met for a brief chat at Springfontein where he was in charge of some sick horses and I was assisting in driving a herd of cattle to Bloemfontein. Charlie had been called up from the Reserve and had arrived in South Africa about March 1900.

Churchill arrived in Pretoria

The next large engagement in which the 2nd Cavalry Brigade participated in was called Diamond Hill, several miles north east of Pretoria. It was here that a large force of Boers was attempting to check our advance into the Eastern Transvaal. All of Ian Hamilton’s Infantry and Artillery were employed in this battle. As the mounted men passed the different regiments on foot such as the Black Watch, the Devons, Northamptons and the Foot Guards trudging along smothered in heavy cloying clouds of dust, they greeted us on horses with quips such as “Lucky devils,” “Give us a life,” or “Oh, I wish that I had joined the cavalry.” On the other hand, some cursed us for creating more dust. This nuisance was inevitable as the veldt was bone dry and the tracks over the ground had been churned up by the waggons and artillery passing over it.

Martienie was built during the Anglo Boer War in December 1880 on the farm Bokfontein by Marthinus Ras

As we had to be well in front in order to take over the scouting duties as well as reconnoitre the Boer positions so that our artillery could spot their gun positions, the cavalry was often used to draw the enemy’s fire. Invariably just as we approached a line of koppies at a walk and well spread out, a large plume of white smoke would appear. First, we would hear the boom as the shell left the gun and then whizz e e e e as the shell hurtled towards us. My stomach felt as if it would turn as I wondered where it was going to burst. Suddenly there would be a great crash, a whizz and a scream and finally a cloud of dust would appear as the shell exploded. Shards of metal would then careen all around us. This sequence of events had occurred so often over the previous months that we had all become inured to it. At this point our cavalry would gallop up, unlimber, shoot off some shrapnel or Lyddite shells which gave us quite a thrill watching the effect of the bombardment.

Map of the Battle of Diamond Hill

One day I received orders to report at Divisional Headquarters in order to act as one of General Ian Hamilton’s orderlies. One trooper from each Cavalry Regiment was the usual rule. The horse that I had been allotted, was a very fine Australian water type with plenty of speed in it. The General, accompanied by a group of staff officers, set off at a canter to get well ahead of the advancing cavalry. They headed for a small group of koppies, dismounted, and then received orders to scout well in front up to a line of low koppies about 2 miles away. On searching the foot of them we returned at a gallop. Our objective on the extreme right was towards a particular knobbly shaped koppie. The others spread out like a fan and to my left flank the other scouts were at 800-yard intervals between each one of the other scouts. The five of us set out, leaving the General and his staff watching the front with their binoculars. Each scout had his particular point of countryside to ride up to and then to return as fast as possible. As I rode steadily out, I passed through two small outposts of our men well under cover in a donga with the horses well out of view from the front. As I passed them, they waved at me. This point was about half way to my objective.

Cavalry on the move

When I had gone another mile and reached the foot of the knobbly koppie, I turned around to gallop back. At this moment, rifle fire opened up on me. The realisation dawned on me why we were sent out. It was to draw the Boers’ fire, but the range was too great for them to get good aim. I also heard rifle fire further along where the other scouts had been sent. On returning to the koppie where the General and his staff were gathered, I had to report on what sort of country I had been over right up to the knobbly koppie. The details of river beds and dongas had to be completed on a Field Report which I was supplied with. I got together with the others as they arrived back, and we chatted about our trip. One chap remarked on his actually seeing a party of mounted Boers who appeared to be manoeuvring a gun into position.

While we were talking, after loosening our girths to ease the saddles and to give our horses a breather, the General rode to us. After complementing us on the quality of our reports, this is what he told us. “Do you see those white stones” while pointing to a few specks of white which were barely visible about a mile away under a line of low koppies. “Well” he continued, “They are the graves of British soldiers who were ambushed in the Battle of Bronkhorstspruit during 1881. As our convoy of ox waggons were moving from camp carrying some wounded men and stores, escorted by a small force of Gordon Highlanders and Royal Scots Fusiliers, we were fired at from both sides of the little valley. Only a subaltern then, I was riding at the front of my men and my bridle arm got 3 bullets in it.”  As he lifted his left arm to show me, he went on, “And my arm has been nearly useless since then. In those days we were still in our red uniforms which formed quite a good target for them to fire at. It was quite a severe reverse for us, with many killed and wounded.

Dundonalld’s Cavalry pursuing the Boers

We were all greatly impressed listening to the General’s short account of his part of the 1881 fighting against the Boers. The General and his staff were then just preparing to leave the high position where they had been planning and surveying the ground for the next advance when we drew the fire of a gun. A fairly large shell crashed amongst us. The scream of pieces of metal and rocks whizzing around assailed us. Two horses had sustained severe wounds and were staggering about. When the dust had settled, a staff officer calmly ordered all to get away from our exposed position. As the General and his staff calmly walked away, I felt that we ought to walk away quicker, but the discipline of our training kept the scouts to our position as escort to the General.

Early the following morning, we were on the move again; the Cavalry, Infantry, Artillery. The Regiment together with the others of our complete Brigade moved right away to the left flank protecting the advance of our Infantry. The 1st Brigade moved to the right flank. As we moved to the flanks, the enemy’s guns started pumping shells onto us. The Cavalry was a lovely target for them spread out on the flat veld but as we were extended in in ranks, not much damage was done.

Sketch by Major Dietz of Battle of Diamond Hill – June 11-12 1900

At last the Brigade halted, sending out Squadrons to take flanking outpost positions as well as reconnoitring well to the flank and front. Now as we dismounted under cover, we could view the advance of our Infantry towards the strongly held Boer positions in the long range of koppies. They were located in the far distance over the ground which the scouts had covered the day before. Batteries of our Field and Royal Horse Artillery were galloping into action, taking up firing positions, unlimbering and then firing a few rounds to cover the Infantry’s advance. Then as our lines of Infantry got well ahead, they limbered up again, only to take up fresh positions before once again pumping shells into the koppie from which the Boer guns were firing. It was an awe-inspiring sight to catch a glimpse of kilted Gordon Highlanders, Devons, Connaught Rangers, Northamptons and many other Regiments spread out in long lines advancing, firing volleys, companies lying down to fire whilst other Companies doubled past them to gain ground to the front and in turn to lie down to fire again.

Fortress on Hospital Hill, Johannesburg

We could behold all of the valley with a clear and unrestricted view from my position in our A Squadron outpost as we occupied very high ground. The rattle of rifle fire in the valley and from the Boers now came to us in a continuous roar. Adding to this crescendo was the crash and whizz of shells bursting amongst our lines of Infantry as they approached ever closer to the long line of koppies which were enveloped in many parts by clouds of smoke and dust from our artillery firing Lyddite and shrapnel shells.

My friend Lammie pointed to the Infantry and notified me, “Look Monto. They are fixing bayonets now in the first waves going up the koppies.” “Yes,” I replied as I could now clearly see the sun glistening on the steel as the first lines gained the slopes at the foot of those distant ranges rising to the sky line.

Johannesburg during the Second Boer .

Now orders came for us to mount and advance. As we got clear of our cover, after gaining about 1000 yards, we came under a fusillade of rifle fire. Onward we galloped, leaving a few men and horses behind on the ground. Arriving at a fresh position under cover of a low hill, our Colonel issued orders for two troops – not A Squadron this time – to scout ahead in well-extended ranks. We watched them get right close up to the low range of koppies from which the enemy had been firing but no sign or sound emanated from that direction. As a result, we rode off to that position and dismounted. Climbing to the top of the koppie, we found plenty of evidence that it has only been occupied a short time ago. Empty cartridge cases, Mauser type, empty sardine tins and fresh horse droppings littered the ground. In the distance, the heavy firing had now slowed down. On reaching the sky line and glancing at the wide valley over which our Infantry had been advancing, the ambulance wagons were picking up the wounded and burying the dead, the large red crosses were very distinctive on the white covered tilts. The stretcher bearers searched the ground right up to the positions previously occupied by the Boers while a haze of dust covered the ground as carts and wagons moved up. We now realised that these positions had been captured and that our Infantry now moving up were over-running the enemy positions which had previously been so strongly held.

I cannot ever forget the wonderful and dogged advance that our troops made over the rough ground facing them and the final charge up the steep koppies. As the scouts had covered most of the same ground on the previous day, they were also aware of what our infantry had accomplished under heavy rifle and shell fire.

So ended the Battle of Diamond Hill.

Sources

Hand written memoirs by AJ Montgomery

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

 


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