Port Elizabeth of Yore: PAG and the Basuto Gun War

The only major Colonial Military Unit formed in Port Elizabeth during the 19th century was the Prince Alfred’s Guards. This unit had already been bloodied in the Battle of Umzintzani on Saturday the 24th February 1877. This battle can be catagorised as the unit’s baptism of fire. In this case, the PAG would be involved in a conflict of a very different nature as many of the Basutos were armed with Martini-Henry rifles that were superior to the Sniders of the colonial forces. Besides this, the magnitude of this campaign was fraught with other difficulties such as concurrent rebellions and uprisings.

The details of the military actions are based upon the book Prince Alfred’s Guards 1856-1966 by Neil Orpen.     

Main picture:  Grand review of the PAG on Donkin Reserve in 1873

Contemporaneous military actions

Possessing colonies is an expensive business especially if the imperial government has to provide military forces to protect their colony against external aggressors or internal dissidents. The solution was twofold.  Either recruit local inhabitants to form military units on a basis similar to how units would function and be equipped in the home country or alternatively they could form Native Units using traditional weapons such as spears and assegais. Apart from their differing forms of weaponry, in Africa, a fundament difference was the racial composition of the two types of units. Fortunately for the Imperial Government in London, the Cape Colony possessed a considerable number of settlers from Great Britain. Regarded as reliably pro England, they could be safely recruited to form part of the recently established military units in the Cape Colony. What bolstered this suggestion was the fact that the settlers had been brought out to serve as a bulwark against the ever-encroaching Xhosa tribes.

During the period of the late 1870s and early 1880s, the military situation in the southern Africa was particularly perilous. Within a year of the Ninth Frontier War [1877 – 1879], fighting had broken out in Zululand. The regulars of the 24th Regiment garrisoning King William’s Town were sent posthaste to Natal. This occurrence coincided with the Tambookie Rebellion in the Transkei and also with the calamitous Transvaal War of 1880-81. Not to apply a layer of gloss onto the military situation but it was clearly unsettled, and these were fraught times. The Colonial Cape Government would spare no effort to suppress all of these uprising. In retrospect much vitriol was heaped upon the Basuto campaign as regards its planning, yet these antagonists displayed their ignorance of the sweeping strictures applied to these campaigns.

First detachment served garrison duty

To assist in the defence of the Frontier towns, a detachment of Prince Alfred’s Guard under Captain D. Ferguson Stewart left Port Elizabeth on 5 February 1879 to take over garrison duties at King William’s Town and in Fort Glamorgan at East London. During three months on service, they earned the respect and gratitude of the sorely tried Colonial Government. This secondment expired on the 26th April 1879.

Two days later Captain Stewart and 80 men of the detachment disembarked at Port Elizabeth from the Courland and were escorted by a guard of honour to the Town Hall, to be officially welcomed by the Mayor, Samuel Bain. The following Sunday, No’s 1, 2 and 3 Companies, attending a Church Parade, wore the Corps’ new scarlet uniform for the first time.

An offer by Captain Stewart and the men of his detachment to proceed on further service in Basutoland was gratefully acknowledged by the Government but was not accepted. The Colonial Forces were being reorganised at the time in a regimental system for which provision had been made in Act 10 of 1878, and at a special meeting in the Grey Institute on 22 September 1879, it was accordingly agreed to adopt the system for existing Prince Alfred’s Guard companies, with Captain G. R. Deare being nominated as Battalion Commander and Staff Officer for Port Elizabeth.

War erupts in Basutoland

Less than a year later the “Gun War” broke out in Basutoland. Trouble had been brewing for some time as a result of the Colonial Government’s order in October 1879, that arms in possession of Basuto tribesmen should be surrendered in terms of the Disarmament Act passed the previous year. Little to no notice had been taken of rebellion in Basutoland until “after a series of diabolical murders of European residents“. This action was the lightning rod for armed reaction as it set the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons being the white population. But more troubling was the scanty to parsimonious planning for this military campaign as would soon evident.  

Basuto response

After being in limbo for a while, the pace of events now gained its own organic momentum. The superannuated Basuto chief Molapo – second in hierarchy only to Letsie ­ died on the 28 June 1880. It was arranged that his funeral would be the occasion for a Pitso, or gathering, at which Letsie himself would speak in favour of compliance with the law.

At the Pitso it swiftly became extremely clear that Letsie was opposed by the chiefs Masupha, Alexander Letsie, and Lerothodi. In the latter’s domain, in lower Basutoland, great excitement prevailed. When Letsie himself sent in nine of his own guns to Maseru, they were seized by his younger sons. Masupha and Lerothodi openly defied the authorities and loyal Basuto who surrendered arms were attacked by rebels. An assault on Maseru threatened, as defenceless fugitives fled there for protection, and on July 24 the Colonial Secretary reported that a loyal Fingo headman and 33 of his followers who carried licensed firearms had been fallen upon by several hundred Basutos. In a gallant fight the Fingoes killed eight rebels and suffered two casualties as they retired on Maseru.

Basutoland was now in a state of armed rebellion.

Preparations by the Colonial Forces

By now, the Commander-in-Chief, Colonial Forces, Brigadier­ General C. M. Clarke, by July 7, had already been warned by the Colonial Secretary to take precautions and hold the Cape Mounted Rifles ready to meet any emergency, Colonel Z. S. Bayly and 250 men of the Cape Mounted Rifles, with 22 ammunition and supply wagons, were already encamped near Queenstown on Sunday, July 25, and reports came in that the Troops at Thomas’s Shop had had to retire before vastly superior numbers of Basutos.

Lt.-Gen. Sir C.M. Clarke

Excitement ran high in Port Elizabeth as news came in of the first draft of 30 Mounted Yeomanry being called up at Aliwal North to escort arms to the Basuto border, whilst there was talk of the necessity of capturing Masupha and Lerothodi if they continued to defy the law. Meanwhile, Masupha was fortifying himself in Thaba Bosigo and by August 8 Mafeteng was virtually besieged by Lerothodi, whilst the Cape Mounted Rifles remained on the Free State side of the Caledon and rebels occupied the border drifts. All government appeals and Letsie’s efforts to influence the recalcitrant chiefs failed

Masupha refused to attend a further Pitso and Lerothodi said he was too unwell to come, though he was known to be fortifying his mountain village near Mafeteng.


Maseru was occupied by Colonel Bayly on September 6. On September 13, Lieut.-Colonel F. C. Carrington and a body of Cape Mounted Rifles advanced on Mafeteng from Wepener, and his column was fired on by Lerothodi and a force of some 600 rebels as they approached the isolated little group of buildings at Mafeteng, where the roads from Morija, Wepener and Mohale’s Hoek met close to the Resident Magistrate’s house. The enemy were routed and pursued for some miles in what was a preliminary effort to open the way to Morija and the kraal of the Paramount Chief, Letsie.

PAG’s ballot

Hostilities had begun in earnest, On September 23, as the result of a Government Order, Prince Alfred’s Guard held a special parade in the Port Elizabeth Town Hall to ballot for 200 men to go on active service with officers who had already volunteered, namely Major Deare, Captains A. Little and Birt, and Lieutenants J. M. Thornton, Miles, Young and T. Purland. With the arrival of the Uitenhage Company, formed only three months previously, balloting proceeded apace for 186 other ranks to make up the detachment, with Sergeant R. W. Clarry drawing the first red ticket to go. Merchants in the town had already subscribed £800 as a Corps fund to provide anything necessary in the field, and on 25 September 1880 the contingent together with 100 men of the First City Volunteers from Grahamstown embarked in the Lapland for East London, from where they went by train to Queenstown with a local Yeomanry Troop. Departure from Queenstown was somewhat marred by the refusal of four Port Elizabeth men to go, as they had lost their waterproof groundsheets. Ordered to gaol by the local magistrate, they started a fight with their escorts and three escaped. All four were fined and dismissed from the force. The rest of the detachment marched off to Carrington’s Camp at Massayne’s Farm near Wepener, close to the border with Basutoland, which they only reached on October 16.

When it was found that there was no Union Jack to fly over the camp, Major Deare asked his men to try and make one. Private C. Murray was sent off post-haste to Port Elizabeth to buy material and the men made a flag which they were to carry throughout the campaign, inscribing on it the names of all the places where they fought. For 50 years the flag was to remain with the unit, till laid up in St Mary’s for safe keeping.

“Vintage engraving from 1881 showing colonial militia scouting in enemy territory during the Basuto Gun War. An 1880-1881 conflict in the British territory of Basutoland (present-day Lesotho) in Southern Africa, fought between Cape Colony forces and rebellious Basotho chiefs over tribal rights.”

Meanwhile the Cape Mounted Rifles, the CMR, had been involved in considerable patrolling and skirmishing and some serious fighting, with a garrison of 220 under Colonel Carrington at Mafeteng and the right wing totalling 500 at Maseru under Colonel Bayly by the end of September. A disturbing feature in the early engagements with the Basuto, a few of whom were like Lerothodi himself, excellent marks-men, was the fact that they were well armed with Martini-Henry rifles which in many cases easily outranged the Snider carbines of the Cape Mounted Rifles. At close quarters, it was soon discovered, the white riflemen were at a very dangerous disadvantage against assegais, battle-axes and knobkieries, as they had no swords, bayonets or revolvers.

Above: PAG Volley firing

With the Tambookies in rebellion in support of the Basutos on the disarmament issue, the Cape Mounted Rifles were being hard pressed to it to cope with full-scale attacks on their isolated encampments. The arrival of the Prince Alfred’s Guard and First City detachments was a welcome addition to the relief force concentrating at Wepener. Maseru was being heavily attacked and Carrington only held out at Mafeteng with his men forced to live on horseflesh.

By October 18, Brig.-General Clarke had quite a sizeable force near the border at Massayne’s Farm, preparing to march to the relief of Mafeteng. Totalling five guns, some 1,600 Europeans and 75 Native other ranks, including seven officers and 165 other ranks. Apart from the PAG, the other units included the First City Volunteers, the 2nd Cape Mounted Yeomanry, the Dukes3rd Yeomanry, Kimberley Horse and Hunt’s Volunteers from Mohale. The Prince Alfred’s Guard under Major Deare, moved off with an advance guard of 50 men. The marching order was determined with PAG and the First City Volunteers covering the wagons in skirmishing order about 30 yards to the left.


Morning broke fine and as the column crossed into Basutoland after about an hour’s march, they approached Kalabani Hill, a small height to the right of the road, which had been occupied by the Cape Mounted Rifles to enable the wagons to pass through the poort between Robatwani’s village and the hill itself. The enemy now appeared in some force to the north, firing at very long range. A few well-directed rounds from the Cape Mounted Rifle’s 7-pounders drove the Basutos back.

Sir Frederick Carrington

There appeared to be nothing on the left, as the column passed through the poort. Brig.-General Clarke ordered the 1st Yeomanry to move to the left flank. As they skirmished up a slope, some of the men dismounted and opened fire on a few Basutos retreating over the ridge ahead. In a matter of seconds, the Basutos and Dalgety’s Yeomanry were almost inextricably locked in fierce hand-to-hand fighting, in which the Natives wrought havoc at close quarters with assegais and battle-axes, killing 24 and wounding about ten others. The Basutos were then driven back with considerable loss, but later they reappeared in strength on both flanks,

Whilst the wagons waited at Kalabani for the wounded and killed of 1st Yeomanry to be brought in, some 300-400 Basutos charged the right front, where they were stopped by the fire of the Dukes, but from then on for some three hours there was a continuous dogfight with Prince Alfred’s Guard and the First City Volunteers in numerous skirmishes on the left, on which flank the guns eventually dispersed large bodies of the enemy. Colonel Carrington’s own force was then seen coming up across the undulating grassy plain from that direction and Clarke’s column made contact with them and entered Mafeteng.

The relief of the post, consisting of little more than an entrenched camp and horse kraal next to the Magistrate’s stone house and garden, a few small buildings, the Court House and Aschman’s Store, had not been accomplished cheaply. Clarke’s column had lost 33 killed or died of wounds, and ten wounded, whilst official reports put enemy killed at about the same.

Lerothodi’s Village

With only a couple of days to rest, on 22 October 1880, 155 officers and men of Prince Alfred’s Guard were on the move again, this time as part of a Headquarters force commanded by Colonel Carrington, with Brig.-General Clarke as a spectator.

Leaving the three Yeomanry Regiments, the Kimberley Horse and First City as camp protection for Fort Cochrane at Mafeteng, the rest of the force-consisting of 150 Cape Mounted Rifles with one 7-pounder and two 5½-inch mortars, Prince Alfred’s Guard, the Dukes and Surman’s and Barkly’s Native Contingents some 300 strong-moved out from Mafeteng at 3 a.m. with the main rebel stronghold at Lerothodi’s Village as their objective. This force took the road to Mafeteng upon which they took followed the path north-eastwards towards Lerothodi’s Village, perched on a broad shoulder with steep krantzes dominating the approaches on the right and a drop on the left to a lower plateau and another village.

The advantage of surprise was lost, as dawn broke whilst Carrington’s column was still approaching the village. Nevertheless, Prince Alfred’s Guard and the other units, climbed the foothills about a mile from the start and burnt some huts. Despite fire from several thousand Basutos on horseback, who advanced onto the flats below the village, there were no casualties. The 7-pounder and mortars were manhandled onto the plateau as the troops watched the enemy hurrying from groups of huts in all directions. A village to the left of the path had already been cleared by the Cape Mounted Rifles at daybreak, but to the right of the path Basutos swarmed on the krantzes dominating the approach to the stronghold, on which shellfire seemed to have little effect. It was deemed inadvisable to try to take the village by storm with this strong force firmly lodged on the flank of the attacking column.

Above: Martini-Henry rifle

Calling up the Kimberley Horse from the camp at Mafeteng as reinforcements, Carrington decided to clear the gorge first, but by the time the Kimberley Horse arrived the Basutos had attempted to advance and, on being driven back by rifle fire, had taken possession of a deep donga running out of the gorge. From good cover they were directing withering fire on the troops. It was imperative that the donga be cleared, and Carrington, in passing Major Deare, asked him how he would propose to take the place.

Well,” said Deare, as far as his own recollection served him afterwards, “I should take that donga first, where all their riflemen are, and then wheel to the left and attack the mountain and send the main column straight at it from where we now stand as soon as the donga is held.” “I think you are right,” agreed Carrington after a few moments thought, “Go and do it. Take what men you want, and I will support you

Deare hastily got the men together and, as far as he himself could remember, he took the whole of the Prince Alfred’s Guard detachment (7 officers and 145 other ranks). After the event, there was considerable difference of opinion as to the actual number engaged, but it seems certain that there were about 25 of the Cape Mounted Rifles and a similar number of the Dukes among those selected by Deare, who took with him Captains Little and Birt and Lieutenants Purland and Miles from Prince Alfred’s Guard. He was greatly assisted by a young Corporal McKay from No. 3 (Scotch) Company, and by Staff-Sergeant Clarry. Purland’s own sketch indicates that the P.A.G. detachment was split into two companies during the action.

The whole assault force first made for a small spur running down from the mountains. Here, under heavy crossfire from the Basutos, the Cape Mounted Rifles dismounted, and Deare ordered them and the detachment of the Dukes under Captain Shervington of the Cape Mounted Rifles to the right flank to seize and hold the donga, whilst he simultaneously led Prince Alfred’s Guard in an assault straight over the ridge. The Guards were drawn up in line with bayonets fixed, Deare took off his cap and tunic, briefly told his men what was required of them and then in the first-ever bayonet charge by any volunteer unit in battle, he led them in a rush across a ploughed mealie field, with the right flank reaching down towards the donga. The Basutos fired into the oncoming ranks of cheering men, mortally wounding Private Charles Smith as Deare gave the order to charge, but they had no time to reload before the volunteers and Cape Mounted Rifles were in the thick of them in a hand-to-hand encounter that soon drove them back with severe losses.

The enemy higher up in the gorge, in danger of being outflanked, began evacuating it fleeing to the krantzes and back into Lerothodi’s Village. It was estimated that some 150 of the enemy were killed before 2 p.m. when the Cape Mounted Rifles, with Prince Alfred’s Guard, the Dukes and the Native Contingents in close support, stormed Lerothodi’s Village itself, which the Kimberley Horse had set on fire. Within half-an-hour the Basutos were in full flight along a footpath leading over a nek to the right. By 4 p.m. Carrington’s column was back in laager at Mafeteng. Eyewitnesses estimated Basuto losses at up to 400 killed, with no fewer than 72 of their horses dead on the field. Later reports reaching Aliwal North put the total Basuto casualties during the operation to clear the stronghold at no fewer than 600.

The troops had suffered relatively small loss, but Prince Alfred’s Guard had nine wounded, among whom Privates C. Smith and A. Spurrell died. Captain Birt, Sergeant Bradshaw, Corporal Blenkinsop, and Privates Davidson, Gaines, Kemp and Tracey were all slightly wounded.

Not long afterwards, with the authorities further exasperated by spreading rebellion in the Transkei and further outbreaks in Basutoland itself, Prince Alfred’s Guard were involved in action near Kalabani Mountain. Then, early on November 10, a strong fighting patrol, of the CMRs, 2nd and 3rd CMY, 156 men of PAG, a detachment of the Dukes, the regular CFA and Bradshaw’s Native Contingent, left the camp at Mafeteng, with Colonel Carrington again in command of the main column.

Native Scouts were some way ahead of the mounted advance guard, approaching Kolo Mountain on the morning of November 13, when shots were heard. Soon the enemy were seen to the front and on both flanks firing steadily on the advancing column with fire from a koppie on the left being particularly hot. Then, as if on a given signal, they charged from both left and right. The Yeomanry retired rapidly onto their supporting infantry. With little progress being made in suppressing the Transkeian rebels, the atmosphere could hardly have been as cheerful during November. Columns went out clearing rebel villages, skirmishing with mounted Basuto bands and constantly expecting to be ambushed but it was difficult to see what they were actually accomplishing. The enemy had reoccupied both Lerothodi’s Village and Kalabani Mountain by November 22, and on Sunday, 28 November, Carrington once again set off on a seven-day patrol towards Kolo with some 1,300 men and 40 wagons. They halted about eight miles from their base and at 2 p.m. a terrific thunderstorm hit the column. Men rushed out of the encampment and amid much firing from both sides they drove off the marauders without loss.

With part of the column lining nearby koppies and firing volleys, the enemy were finally driven off and they were held back and harassed by artillery fire covering the withdrawal of the column back to camp, with the loss of one killed, one wounded and two missing.

With Brig.-General Clarke away from the Basutoland front, with widespread dissatisfaction at the appointment of Carrington to act over his senior, Colonel Bayly, and little progress being made in suppressing the Transkei rebels, the atmosphere could hardly have been as cheerful as possible on the regular patrols during November. Columns went out clearing rebel villages, skirmishing with mounted Basuto bands and constantly expecting ambush but it was difficult to see what they were actually accomplishing. The enemy had reoccupied both Lerothodi’s Village and Kalabani Mountain by November 22, and on Sunday, November 28, Carrington once again set off on a seven-day patrol towards Kolo with some 1,300 men and 40 wagons. They halted about eight miles from their base and at 2 p.m. a terrific thunderstorm hit the column. The terrified cattle stampeded towards the Basutos who were in fortified hills off to the left, and as the storm died down the enemy rode out to cut off the cattle. Men rushed out of the encampment and amid much firing from both sides they drove off the marauders without loss.

At about 9 o’clock that night, however, whilst the band of Prince Alfred’s Guard “played sweet music” to entertain the troops, the Basutos attacked the encamped patrol for an hour and a half before being driven off. Shots were exchanged again next day, mounted patrols on 30 November were engaged and on December 1 Carrington, leaving Major Deare in charge of the camp, took 600 men and one gun south-eastward towards Thaba T’soen, and became involved in a sharp engagement in the morning. A large Basuto commando from Kolo meanwhile swept down on the rear of the camp itself and though Deare managed to get the cattle and horses in safely, the enemy were so numerous in the whole area that by 1.30 p.m. Carrington had to pull back with the loss of one European and one Native killed and four wounded.

On Saturday, December 4, a strong force from Carrington’s Column moved their camp to a position in front of Katrines Berg opposite Tsita’s Village, one of the most important in Basutoland. Their march was unmolested and at 1 p.m. a dismounted force of 220 Dukes, 100 Prince Alfred’s Guard, 30 Kimberley Horse and 60 of the Mohales Hoek Native Contingent set off to burn the well situated and heavily fortified village and trap the enemy.

Under cover of darkness the troops silently climbed a mountain said to be more difficult than Devil’s Peak, though not as high, to the left rear of Tsita’s Village.7 As day broke, they opened fire on the village, which was evacuated in great haste by a large force of Basutos. With Prince Alfred’s Guard under Lieutenant Miles left to hold the heights, the rest of the force stormed the village with fixed bayonets, quickly took it and burnt it in face of eight to ten thousand of the enemy in the neighbourhood.

Some 239 mounted men and two guns, sent out from the camp at 3p.m. for a frontal attack to counter any attempt by the Basutos at cutting off the storming party, arrived just too late to prevent the escape of the enemy, but brought the guns into action. Bradshaw’s Native Contingent, supported by the Kimberley Horse, nevertheless charged and captured a hill to the right, and the Basutos made no attempt to close until the troops began to withdraw. With only one Cape Mounted Rifles orderly wounded, the column returned safely to camp at 6.30 a.m., leaving a smouldering mass of huts behind them.

This little success and similar punitive patrol activities, unfortunately, appeared to be bringing operations no nearer any satisfactory conclusion, and detachments, including the dukes, were already protesting against continued service in Basutoland without relief as provided for by Section VII of Act 10, 1878. Then disturbing news reached the discontented volunteers. Strong rumours of serious trouble with the Boers round Potchefstroom were current when 645 men, including 300 Burghers, moved out of camp under Brabant at 4 a.m. on December 13. With one gun, the column moved through Azariel’s Nek to destroy villages occupied by the Basutos whilst Carrington took 485 men and one gun to the right of Pokwane Mountain to draw off the enemy.

Carrington’s force took up position in front of Pokwane Ridge, which was strongly occupied by the enemy, whom they drove off by shelling. Large bodies of Basutos were seen to be making for a hill to the right rear of Carrington’s position and a Troop of the Cape Mounted Rifles, together with the Mafeteng Native Contingent, were sent off at the gallop to seize the hill. Without orders, 200 Burghers joined in the race, leaving Carrington with barely 200 men. He began to withdraw towards the hill with what was left of his force and was surrounded by the enemy.

Forming a hollow square round the horses and two wagons, Carrington’s men fought their way through about 1,500 Basutos with Commandant Barkly and the Kimberley Horse gallantly holding the rear face of the square, which by now was hard-pressed by anything up to 5,000 of the enemy.

On approaching rising ground near Tsita’s Nek, Carrington wheeled the square to the right. Then the front, consisting of the Cape Mounted Rifles and Prince Alfred’s Guard with some of the Dukes, charged the Basutos holding the crest and drove them back, killing several and taking one prisoner. Forming a defensive square once again on the high ground thus gained, the little force drove the enemy back out of range by accurate fire and the Burghers, covered by the Cape Mounted Rifles and Native Contingent, fought their way back to rejoin the main body at Tsita.

Brabant, at Azariel’s Village about four miles away, meanwhile, was held up by 2,000 of the enemy, and fell back onto Carrington’s position. The Basutos at Tsita, seeing his column on the move, retired hastily round Pokwane Ridge. There had been some very sticky moments for Carrington’s depleted force whilst warding off attacks on the move, and it was whilst supplying his men with ammunition during the last strong attack by the enemy on the square that Lieutenant T. T. C. Purland was shot through the thigh and fell. Immediately about a dozen men of Prince Alfred’s Guard were round him and as no stretcher could be found, they carried him. Though in great pain, he made light of the wound, which one of the Kimberley Horse quickly bound up just before Carrington wheeled the column for the charge onto the ridge. At first it was hoped the wound would heal, but Purland’s leg had to be amputated, a serious loss for which he was to receive a princely pension of only £75 per annum. Privates Robert White and Thomas Kenny were also seriously wounded, and Colonel Carrington and Brabant each lost one man killed.

Private C. H. Rosher of No 2 Company, in the thick of the Tsita action, went to the rescue of one of the wounded men who had been shot through the thigh, like Purland, and carried him from the koppie to the support line under heavy fire from the enemy. With news from the Transvaal growing daily more disturbing, and a report that a Boer force had taken possession of Heidelberg and set up their own government with Paul Kruger, General P. J. Joubert and M. W. Pretorius as their leaders, the troops in Basutoland kept on with the wearisome job of patrolling. By Christmas, considerable activity was reported round the camp at Thlotsi Heights. The men were becoming thoroughly bored, and the Press went so far as to state that “desertions are the order of the day,” but this does not appear to have been the case with Prince Alfred’s Guard, which spent a memorable Christmas at Tsita’s Camp, opening huge boxes of comforts and delicacies provided through the efforts of a Ladies’ Committee in Port Elizabeth.

It was significant that Major Deare, in acknowledging this generosity by letter, referred to the Basutos as not only always outnumbering the troops but also “better armed and splendidly mounted“, a view expressed on a number of occasions in Press reports also. The issue of Martini Henry Rifles to the Cape Mounted Rifles in place of their inferior Sniders was only a partial solution to the problem.                                                                                    ·

Rain early in the New Year delayed a proposed move from Tsita’s Camp, but by 8 January 1881, Carrington’s column was encamped at Pokwane, with a convoy escorted by Burghers sent off to bring back supplies from the border. They were well on their way when, at 12.30 p.m. about 30 of the enemy charged a picket only some 15 yards from the left face of the camp. The Basutos were driven back, but their reinforcements could be seen moving in small groups from Tsita’s Nek and concentrating to the right of Tsita’s Hill. They moved up again on the left and about 40 Cape Mounted Rifles had to be sent to support the picket whilst two or three rounds from the 7-pow1ders were put in among the Basuto.

Almost as the shells burst, some hundreds of Basutos charged. They were repulsed by heavy fire and retired beyond a rise from which they kept up a steady fire till the picket deliberately fell back to draw them on. The artillery and rifle fire was too much for them and though the whole body of Basutos charged once again on the right front of the camp and firing continued for some time, they were eventually driven off and pursued to Pokwane Ridge. Two members of the Prince Alfred’s Guard detachment were wounded.


At 4 a.m. on January 10, a patrol of 850 men including Prince Alfred’s Guard and 350 Burghers, under Colonel Brabant but with Carrington as a spectator, left Pokwane with two guns, heading southward towards Lerothodi’s Village. They had gone barely two miles when they were fired on from a ridge. The Burghers having dislodged the enemy in a charge, the whole column then proceeded towards the ridge, the Yeomanry and Dukes halting on the first rise with one gun. The rest went on, exchanging shots with the enemy, until they reached a koppie opposite Thaba T’soen where they met strong resistance from a large body of Basutos in position on a steep slope about 800 yards away.

It was apparently on this occasion near Lerothodi’s village that a small band of Volunteers from the Grahamstown 1st City Volunteers was isolated from the main force of Regulars and Port Elizabeth Volunteers and was cut down by the Basutos. There were six Volunteers, four of them sons or grandsons of 1820 Settlers. The youngest, Bugler Wood, aged 17, hid in the bush and watched his father and the others being slain and their hearts cut out, which the Basutos ate with relish, believing that by doing so they would inherit the courage of the White man. Bugler Wood received a medal from Captain Nelson for his bravery, in returning with a party to the spot to retrieve the bodies.

Failing to dislodge the enemy with artillery and small arms fire and noticing two further groups of Basutos on the hills to his left front, Colonel Brabant decided to take the position by storm. Mounted men from the Cape Mounted Rifles, Yeomanry, Kimberley Horse and part of the Mafeteng Native Contingent, all under Captain Shervington, and supported by a Burgher detachment, started from the rear of Brabant’s position and, taking advantage of dead ground, got within 300 yards of the Basutos before being observed. Under heavy fire, they reached the edge of the ledge from which the enemy were firing and caught them still dismounted.

Jumping from the saddle, the troops poured in volleys for about ten minutes, killing 60 or more of the enemy and capturing many of their horses. Meanwhile, a large body of Basutos was seen charging on the storming party from the left, but a few well-placed shells brought them to a halt and the mounted assault party retired onto the main body of Brabant’ s column. They then moved unmolested to a dominating koppie for breakfast, before returning to their own camp, from which they spotted and shelled a large number of Basutos about 1½ miles away in Pukwana’s Village. The patrol had suffered eight casualties, all wounded, and Corporal John Heath of Prince Alfred’s Guard subsequently died of his wounds

Major Deare’s Fourth Active Service Detachment had their last engagement in Basutoland a few days later, at the Battle of Tweefontein on 14 January 1881.On this occasion, 500 Headquarters Camp men from the Cape Mounted Rifles (110), 1st (80) and 3rd Yeomanry (30) Prince Alfred’s Guard (60), Dukes (120), Kimberley Horse (50), and the Native Contingent (50) plus two guns, 400 Burghers and 60 of 2nd Yeomanry from the Mafeteng garrison left Pokwane Camp with an ambulance and two ammunition wagons at 4 a.m. The strong fighting patrol-again under Brabant with Carrington as a spectator-headed for Thaba T’soen, north-east of Pokwane, and met no opposition for the first six miles. They did not know that in dead ground near Sepechele village Lerothodi had 8,000 men.

Brabant sent the Burghers ahead to seize a village on the right called Radiamari. Their advance guard, in the rain, was then fired on from the top of a koppie, which they and the Native Contingent charged in very scattered formation through thick mist. Only some of them had reached the crest when suddenly 2,000 mounted Basutos appeared over a rise only about 200 yards to the left front of the main column, whom they charged at full gallop. A squadron of the Cape Mounted Rifles, dismounting rapidly, opened a terrific fire on the advancing enemy and split them, but meanwhile others had charged the Burghers, who tried to retire hurriedly instead of dismounting and using their rifles.

Commandant Erasmus of Somerset East, trying to induce his men to stand, fell into the hands of the enemy and was killed as the Basutos got in amongst the disorganised Burghers and cut them up badly with assegais and battle-axes, until driven back by the Yeomanry, with small arms fire from the saddle. Surgeon J. F. McCrea, of 1st Cape Mounted Yeomanry, though wounded himself, halted under heavy fire to attend to a wounded Burgher, and won the Victoria Cross during the fierce engagement. Both guns were in action, and the fusillade continued on all sides for an hour and a half, in spite of the rain, before the two guns both broke down and 140 of the Yeomanry, with the Dukes in support, put in a charge with their recently issued swords and forced the enemy out of their positions towards Witkoppies. Prince Alfred’s Guard and the Native Contingent completed the rout by driving the Basutos from the ruins of the old Tweefontein trading station where they tried to make a stand before breaking in disorder. On three occasions Prince Alfred’s Guard went in with the bayonet, led by Major Deare and Lieutenants Miles and Thornton, before the column returned to camp at Tsita after a strenuous five hours of fighting in the rain.

Enemy dead were estimated at 80, but the column itself lost six killed, with 16 wounded, including Private Makins of Prince Alfred’s Guard, in addition to 22 Burghers and three Native levies killed and 25 Burghers wounded. There was already talk of overtures for peace in Basutoland, which would have been welcomed, as war had broken out against the Transvaal Boers and the British disaster at Laing’s Nek was already a matter for serious concern among Colonial military men.

Major Deare’s detachment, whose time had expired, left the Basutoland front on January 31, and 137 of the 200 who had left Port Elizabeth now returned home under Captain Little whilst some really keen men remained behind to join the relief detachment under Captain Gordon. Before they finally left Azariel’s Camp on February 4, the column commander thanked them all for their services, and on February 19 the Venice with the flag of Prince Alfred’s Guard flying at the masthead, sailed into Algoa Bay, bringing them home to Port Elizabeth, where they were given a warm reception and entertained in the Town Hall that evening at a public banquet for which £500 had been subscribed.

PAG’s Fifth Active Service Detachment

The Fifth Active Service Detachment of Prince Alfred’s Guard, in their green jackets and under command of Captain George Gordon, had left in the Durban from Port Elizabeth on January 3, with 180 other ranks and Lieutenants M. H. Spence, R. Seater, C. G. Elliott and Back. Major Deare was still in Basutoland with the volunteers from the previous detachment, and on Sunday, 13 February 1881, he was in command of the Port Elizabeth volunteers when Colonel Carrington decided to move his whole column to attack “the White koppie at Boleka“, one of two or three koppies which were the key to a long Basuto defensive line near which they had fought the Battle of Tweefontein. The Dukes, whose time for relief had passed, at first refused to march to Boleka, but eventually 70 of them volunteered and the rest were sent back to Mafeteng and replaced with Yeomanry.

At 1.30 a.m., in bright moonlight, Carrington set out for Witkoppies with a force of 530 from the Cape Mounted Rifles, Kimberley Horse, Prince Alfred’s Guard and First City Volunteers, with some of the Native Contingent. At daybreak they passed their old Boleka camp site and then they halted whilst the advance guard, with the Native Contingent leading, galloped to charge the enemy in a favourite old position of Lerothodi’s. The Cape Mounted Rifles followed, with the First City and Prince Alfred’s Guard in support. The result was ludicrous, as the enemy were fast asleep and woke just in time to bolt without firing a shot. Within ten minutes the position was in Carrington’s hands.

Some 600 yards to the left, however, one of the koppies still remained to be taken, and the enemy, now fully aroused, galloped off to occupy it. The Native Contingent raced the Basutos, with four white officers ahead of them. Reaching the koppie first, the officers held the enemy off with revolvers till their own men and the infantry came up and drove the Basutos back. Moving on to form a new camp among the koppies, at Ramakahoutsie’s village, the column put the last of the enemy to flight towards evening with long range gun fire and settled down with Boleka Ridge about five miles ahead of them across open country.

Having been reinforced by three 6·3-inch rifled muzzle-loading howitzers, Colonel Brabant left the Ramakahoutsie camp at 12.30 a.m. on February 15 with a strong force of Cape Mounted Rifles, Yeomanry, Kimberley Horse, Dukes, First City and 50 of Prince Alfred’s Guard, together with some of the Native Contingent and a detachment of the regular Cape Field Artillery, who took with them two 7-pounders and one of the 6·3-inch howitzers. The object was to reconnoitre a new camp site on the main road to Morija and trouble was expected, as the Basutos had sent word that they meant to fight and, if necessary, “would die among the Greenjackets.” The column moved to the rear of a ridge and through the Poort, and it was whilst they were getting their guns through a muddy spruit that they saw the enemy closing in from the hills all around.

Fifty men of 2nd Yeomanry were sent to cover the column from the left rear and Brabant sent off the Native Contingent to hold the edge of the plateau about 1,600 yards to the right of the road, whilst the column pushed on to gain the crest of a ridge ahead with a small scouting party of the Cape Mounted Rifles well to the fore. The main body had just reached the crest and got men and guns into position, forming a square with the 7-pounders, loaded with case-shot at the angles, the howitzer inside and the infantry on the left face, when the Basutos charged from the front and both flanks simultaneously. On the left Lerothodi himself led a most determined assault through mealie fields against the 2nd Yeomanry and the infantry, who fired four steady volleys whilst the 7-pounders sent case-shot pouring into the advancing mass of the enemy.

Major-General E Y Brabant, KCB, CMG

So close did the Basuto horsemen come on the left of the square that two of them almost reached one of the 7-pounders before being shot down by Prince Alfred’s Guard. One man, Colonel Brabant reported in his despatch, literally fell on the bayonets of the Greenjackets as his horse swerved. To the front and on the right the enemy had further to charge and never got to within 200 yards of the Cape Mounted Rifles and Yeomanry, whilst the Kimberley Horse and the rest of the Yeomanry easily repulsed a weak attack on the rear face of the square. With the 1st Yeomanry charging and clearing the last of the enemy from the ridge, 38 of the Basutos and 20 of their horses were left lying dead close to the infantrymen’s bayonets as the rest fled in confusion to Ramabidikwe’s and other villages below the Tantjesberg.

The guns, especially the howitzer, had a most demoralising effect on the Basutos and as the gunners shelled the villages the enemy fled over the Tantjesberg, leaving the plateau to the victors. Unfortunately, Brabant could find no water or suitable camping site, so at about 4 p.m. the column turned back to the camp at Ramakahoutsie village. Continual rains seriously hampered operations during the ensuing weeks and with poor tentage, lack of fuel and a general absence of proper hygiene on camp sites, the lot of the men was not a happy one. The disastrous defeat of the British by the Boers at the Battle of Majuba at the end of February and the death of General Colley during the action over­ shadowed events in Basutoland but brought no respite to the sorely tried men. Brig.-General Clarke had returned to overall command by the time Carrington, after more than a week of continuous rain, on March 7, moved from Witkoppies through a veritable sea of mud to Ramabidikwe Camp on its grassy, slightly swampy plateau in a basin surrounded by rocky ridges, over a spur of which ran the main road to Boleka.

It was considered essential to take the spur, but though Headquarters Camp was again moved on March 18 owing to cases of fever, it was not till March 22 that the Brig.-General made a reconnaissance in force of the ground between Boleka and Tantjesberg, with a view of bringing on an engagement in open country. Clarke moved from Matabe camp at 6a.m. with a force of 1,179 men, all dismounted except for the Cape Mounted Rifles, 1st and 3rd Yeomanry and the artillery. The Basuto positions were shelled and some 1,300 yards to the column’s front a large body of mounted men began massing behind a ridge, but Clarke had no intention of engaging them at close quarters whilst exposed to heavy fire from the hills on both sides.

The artillery, however, was very active and for some six hours firing continued, with Prince Alfred’s Guard on the front face, exposed to heavy fire. Captain Gordon was the first casualty and was dangerously wounded in the thigh by a bullet he carried till his death in 1899. Eight other Prince Alfred’s Guard men were hit. Gordon was giving orders from behind the firing line when he was hit by a bullet in the groin, but fortunately a couple of men immediately went to his assistance and carried him to an ambulance. Colonel Carrington and two other ranks were also severely wounded, Carrington being hit at extreme range by fire from Boleka Mountain when within a. few hundred yards of camp on the patrol’s return. Three other men were slightly wounded in the engagement.

By this stage, rain, discomfort and illness had taken all the glory out of the campaign, which dragged on for another month, with some action at Pokwane Ridge before the conclusion of peace negotiations on 28 April 1881. The campaign was not without its amusing side and old campaigners for years to come told the story of a false alarm among the first draft of Burghers who-so the story ran-fired about 3,000 rounds at a lot of anthills one night, hitting over 100 of their own horses. 

The Fifth Active Service Detachment only arrived back home by rail to Port Elizabeth on May 15, detraining by sad coincidence as Lieutenant Robert Seater’s funeral procession crossed the Market Square. He had died as the result of fever contracted in Basutoland. Colour-Sergeant J. Wynne, Private D. Dundas and Private J. Sell had also died through illness whilst on active service, Corporal J. Heath, Private C. Smith and Private H. Dowling had all been killed in action and Private A. Spurrell had died of wounds. Prince Alfred’s Guard had thus lost eight men out of a total 313 who served in the “Gun War” of 1880-81.

At a meeting of the Corps in the Court House on 12 July 1881, the Commanding Officer announced that a monument, subscribed for by the members of the two Basutoland detachments, would shortly be erected at Mafeteng to mark the resting place of those who fell during the campaign. Unfortunately, after the spell of active service, a not unnatural reaction set in and it was with difficulty that enthusiasts like Major Deare, Captain Gordon, Sergeant-Major White and Colour­ Sergeant Clarry managed to keep the unit going during the rest of the year

The Regimental history “Prince Alfred’s Guard”, by Neil Orpen, 1967, gives the unit’s casualties in the Gun War as:

Lt. R. Seater
Sgt.-Maj. J. Wynne
Cpl. J. Heath
Pte. H. Dawling
Pte. J. W. Sell
Pte. C. Smith
Pte. R. Spurrell
Pte. D. Dundas.

At p. 47 it is stated that Seater died in Part Elizabeth as the result of fever contracted in Basutoland, that Wynne, Dundas and Sell died on active service, that Smith, Dowling and Heath were killed in action, and that Spurrell died of wounds.

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