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 Relief of Kimberley.
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 with Imperial Forces still using swords and lances against the wily Boers with their superior fieldcraft using Mausers.
Main picture: Painting of AJ Montgomery of the 10th Hussars
Our next big advance was to relieve Kimberley. At last we pitched camp at a place we nicknamed “Ram Dam.” We rested here for several days as our horses were too exhausted to proceed. It is fair to say that it was not only the horses but the men too who were suffering. After being on the move for many days and subsisting on our base Army rations of Bully Beef and Biscuits, we are all losing weight.
The battle in the Colesberg area was an eye-opener for the troops as they now have a clearer picture of their Boer opponents. Principally they would hold secure positions until their flanks are threatened, then they retire rapidly. They possess fine hardy horses and to aid them in being able to move at a moment’s notice, they carry the bare necessities in their saddles unlike the British soldier who had to carry much more on their horse. By this time, we were under no illusions as to the enemy’s mobility and their clever tactics in drawing us onto their well-held positions, holding their fire until we were close enough for them to give us a good dose of rifle fire and then mount their horses and gallop away like lightening with our horses too tired in many cases to follow through.
This camp had supplies for us. Therefore, we reverted to full field rations for horses and the men instead of the half rations which we had endured for some days. Awaking one morning, we discovered that two more Cavalry Brigades had marched into the camp, among them being the Household Life Guards Composite Regiment, 16th Lancers from India, 12th Lancers, 8th Hussars, part of the 14th Hussars as well as some Mounted Infantry companies of Colonial Regiments which brought the mounted force up to the strength of three full Cavalry Brigades. In addition there were Horse Artillery Batteries and Army Medical Companies.
The very next morning was full of activity for us. When we were ready, the mounted troops formed into a hollow square in close order. General French addressed us giving a frank talk. The gist of his presentation was that the three Cavalry Brigades were going to outflank the strong positions of the Boer forces surrounding Kimberley and then execute a coup de main whereby the Cavalry would dash in and relieve the Garrison holding it. He emphasised that we were attempting what the Infantry Divisions under General Methuen had attempting to accomplish these last few weeks. The difference would be the element of surprise if the troops moved swiftly enough. He concluded his speech by reminding the troops to take care of their horses and to remember that most of the finest Cavalry Regiments and Royal Horse Batteries from the British Empire were participating in this attack.
We marched off with the scouts well in front. Sometimes we even marched at night until eventually we came to the enemy’s outposts which we easily overran. On the 5th day, we encountered the Naval Brigade with their large 4.7inch guns mounted on special carriages drawn by oxen. Dressed in their round straw hats with chin straps under their jaws and khaki blouses and trousers tucked into their khaki gaiters, the name of their ship, the H.M.S. Excellent, was sewn onto a blue band around their hats. Up until that time, the weather had been hot and as we moved, dust rose and enveloped our column. When it was our turn for advanced scout’s duty right in front of the column, we were grateful to do so as we escaped from the persistent clouds of dust.
As my friend Polly remarked, as he chewed into his ration of Bully Beef, “I hardly know whether its sand or trek oxen [that] I’m eating.” As we very often had to scramble our food on the move and when the tins of Bully Beef were opened and shared out between 3 or 4 of us, the fat had melted into an oily liquid. It was then that the dust around us would settle on it, but it did not matter as we were too hungry to care much. More problematic was the water situation. It was the water question of this exhausting march that worried us as we were rationed to a very limited supply per diem.
Early dawn, my troop was assigned advance scout duty well ahead of the Cavalry Brigades. We were entering a wide valley with a line of koppies to the right and left flank when the enemy’s large calibre guns opened fire from the right flank. One shell landed just to the right with a whistle and then a crash, a cloud of dust rose, and shrapnel screamed overhead. Rifle fire followed us, and we could now hear the swish of bullets hitting the ground whereupon our Troop Leader issued a command for us to halt, allowing time for our Regiment to catch up with us. An order was issued to reform our squadron. As the whole of the massed cavalry started deploying to the right and to the left, the Naval Brigade’s guns commenced firing. The shells of the big naval guns could now be spotted bursting along the koppies held by the enemy. One of the enemy’s shells burst nearby among our troops while we were advancing in open Brigade order at a canter with the 12th & 16th Lancers as well as the 8th Hussars on the left and the 10th Hussars and the Composite Regiment of Household Cavalry, Inniskilling Dragoons, 14th Hussars and Colonial Mounted Infantry on the right. All these units were moving along at a fast canter with the Horse Artillery following up behind. We were now in extended order, line after line of mounted men all moving in good order. We noticed a Royal Horse Battery move to our flank at a hard gallop. They raced past us, wheeled, unlimbered as if they broke in halves. When settled, the limbers and horses were moved back away from the gun as the gunners gathered around the guns. Shortly thereafter, the 12 pounders opened fire on a koppie just to our flank. We could spot the shell burst and dust rise up in a cloud. We raced past them while other Royal Horse Batteries had unlimbered and commenced shelling the koppies to left and right of us. All this time, the Naval long-range guns were firing at the Boer positions to our right and left front among the broken rocky koppies. By now we were under very heavy rifle fire from both flanks, but it was from a long range. That did not stop General French’s Cavalry from their determined gallop through this long valley to the Relief of Kimberley. We passed little groups of dismounted men who were leading wounded horses along. Others were attending to wounded troops. Then it happened. Swish. I felt a tug at my saddle and my horse started to canter awkwardly. I glanced down its flank and noticed my carbine bucket with my carbine swinging under his belly. I could not reach it at the pace we were going. With all the noise of galloping horses as well as shell bursts and rifle fire, I could not request permission from my troop leader to dismount. Moreover he would not have heard me anyhow as he was well to my right. At this point, my horse started galloping more steadily. I glanced down to my right and noticed that my carbine had fallen out of the bucket. What happened – I found out later – is that a bullet had torn through the big back strap of my carbine’s bucket. Then it had kept smacking against my horse’s flank causing his pace to falter.
After a long gallop under shell and rifle fire, General French gave orders for all of us to walk, while still advancing, but to ignore small bursts of rifle fire from our flanks. In the meantime, our heavy guns had evidently silenced the enemy’s guns or alternatively we had moved right through them and were out of their range.
At last we reached the outskirts of Kimberley and then had sliced right through the ring of defences of the enemy, giving them quite a shock as it surprised them completely. We sent out strong patrols in all directions before camping by a large dam where we watered our poor exhausted horses. Afterwards, the Roll was called and discovered that quite a lot of troops had been reported as missing. That night we heard some of those whose horses were shot, returning into camp, walking with their saddles on their shoulders whereas those who had been wounded or who had been injured on the hard ground when the horses had fallen had been picked up by our Army Medical light ambulance carts.
The people in Kimberley had been starving during the siege. We heard all about their plight from some of them who came out to our camp. Early the next morning we were off again marching and scouting under rifle and gunfire nearly every day. Now it was not only the inhabitants of Kimberley, who were starving, but the troopers too as we were on half rations. Our horses were also looking half-starved and looked like “hat sacks” what with their ribs showing. It was not until we reached Bloemfontein that this situation would change as we had a long rest.
Hand written memoirs by AJ Montgomery
Photographs of AJ Montgomery supplied by Alan Derek Montgomery, grandson of AJ Montgomery