A.J. Montgomery: Part 3 – Baptism of Fire at the Battle of Colesberg

 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 outside Colesberg during January 1900 with the cavalry still using swords and lances aginst the Boers’ mausers.

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 during his baptism of fire outside the dusty hamlet of Colesberg in the northernmost part of the Cape Colony.

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

At last our train pulled off from Cape Town Station, followed by cheering crowds of kindly people. Some time later we arrived at Stellenbosch where a large remount camp had been established. We were allocated our tents and later, while on parade, given headstalls for our remounts and instructed to each select a horse from the hundreds in the enclosed kraals. From their appearance, they looked like a rough, mixed lot, very wild and were very hard to catch. I managed to get hold of a sturdy type, a youngish gelding. We soon discovered that most of them were only partly broken into the saddle. Consequently, we had a lively time for the next few days training them. Mine always arched his back as soon as I mounted and kept trying to get his head down to buck. However I managed to break that habit after a time and he revealed many good attributes such as a nice trot. Rather it was more like a shuffling canter. Then at last we received orders to entrain and form up with the rest of the Regiment for the journey into the hinterland.

10th Royal Hussars during the Boer War

We arrived at a small siding near Colesberg called Arundel where the rest of the Brigade of Cavalry under General French, and the remainder of our Regiment, were camped. As we commenced detraining and collecting our horses from the trucks, we suddenly heard a shrill, harsh noise overhead and then a shattering explosion about 3000 yards to our flank; our first experience of being under heavy shell fire.

At the behest of the officers, the N.C.O.s chivvied us to saddle up and parade in our respective troops. None of us required any encouragement to move swiftly as about half a dozen more shells were fired at us from a large calibre gun in a position which seemed like miles away in a long range of koppies. Away in the distance, an ox wagon had been waiting for our heavy baggage to be removed from the train. At last we were all mounted and moving off from the siding and not one of the shells had burst any nearer to us than about 200 yards. We heard afterwards that the gun was called the Long Tom, and its modus operandi was to always fire at our troops when riding down to a stream to water our horses. What a waste of shells that was but it was our baptism of fire from a large calibre gun. Later on we found that snipers had tried to get near our camp but that our outposts had successfully driven them off every time.

Colesberg in the Cape Colony

A period of intense patrolling and mounted reconnaissance was now commenced by probing in amongst the broken countryside. The Regiments in our Brigade were the 10th Hussars, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, the New South Wales Lancers, 6th Horse Battery of Artillery and a small section of Army Medical Corps with their light mule carts.

During that period, we witnessed our engineers and artillery haul up some fairly large calibre guns onto the top of Colesberg koppie, which was a great feat and enabled us to suppress the fire from the Boer guns. To prevent the enemy from invading this part of the Cape Colony, the Engineers used strong wire cables and pulleys fixed at intervals in the Rocks.

Troops sleep by their arms prior to the Colesberg attack 30th December 1899

Early in January 1900, the whole of our forces attacked the strongly held Boer positions around Colesberg. At early dawn one morning, the Cavalry Brigade was ordered to form up in close column just under a line of low koppies. As we were getting mounted, our horse and field artillery, as well as the light guns, started quick firing. One battery very close behind us opened fire, nearly deafening us as the shells whistled over our heads. Then the order came: “Wire cutters out.” With that, two men, specially picked from each troop, galloped from cover and spread well out to our front. At that moment, the guns from our position ceased firing. The ensuing silence suddenly felt quite uncanny.

The Suffolks at Colesberg

All the Cavalry formed at the walk into Squadron Column from under the cover of the low koppies with the A Squadron – JR’s squadron – of the 10th Hussars leading. When we were devoid of all cover and in the open, we could then hear the enemy’s Mausers firing at our wire cutters.  We had orders to trot while still riding in close order right onto the open veld characterised by plenty of broken ground and small rising koppies far in the distance. The order then came from our leaders to draw swords as the Brigade advanced into the open. Immediately thereafter, orders came to right wheel into line. What a sight. As I glanced to my right, I saw the Regiment and the Inniskilling Dragoons with their front line armed with lances at the ready. Beyond them were the New South Wales Lancers all stretched out in two ranks whereupon the enemies’ guns commenced firing at us from their strong positions in front of us.

Some burghers of General De la Rey in the Colesberg district

As we advanced, orders were passed along to extend ranks. Shells were now exploding among us. I saw Lance Corporal Tommy Housey, our Troop’s shoeing smith, blown right off his horse and his mangled body lying a few yards to my right. In our troop, several horses were hit by shrapnel. Some dropped down just as we received the order to gallop. We passed some of our dead wire cutters lying by the stone posts with the cut wire rolled up by them. As we passed through the cut wires, we came under a heavy burst of rifle fire. Now we could see the enemy firing with some dismounted Boers behind large stone posts, sniping at us. Our Squadron now charged straight at them, yelling as hard as we could, just as we had been taught to do in training. I felt distraught after spotting the bodies of our pals lying dead and wounded.

Some of the Boers who had not made good their escape, were cut down by our swords but most of them managed to mount their horses in time and retreat “hell for leather”. I slashed one Boer over the neck with my sword just as he lifted his rifle to fire point blank at me. I could hear the whistle of his bullets pass near my head, and then I caught sight of him as I flashed by, attempting to reach his horse standing nearby. We were all now trying to get our horses to our objective which was the at the end of a row of low koppies. We still formed a long line of galloping troops with swords and lances drawn.

From the flank, a pom-pom now started firing at us. Our Squadron leader pointed his sword towards it and shouted, “Come on A Squadron. We’re going to get that damned gun.” We followed him and met a sharp burst of rifle fire. I heard one bullet smack into Polly Parrett’s horse. It went down with Polly cursing and swearing. [We were one less in our section, 2 counting poor old Tommy Housey who had met his Maker a few minutes before.] We kept on behind our leader, right up to the gun position, and found it to be deserted. They must have packed it up and then escaped on their pack horses as soon as they spotted us charging towards them. Notwithstanding that, we were still under fire from a ridge about 800 yards away.

1899-1902 Boer War Memorial Colesberg Cemetery Northern Cape

At that moment, on hearing the bugles sound the Rally Call, the Squadron formed up into column under our troop officers and we began to ride back to the main body of the Brigade having gained quite a lot of ground in our advance. As soon as we were under cover, we formed up and led our tired horses to a dam of muddy water for a drink. When the Roll was called, the final tally was 7 men killed and 14 men wounded as well as countless horses too. Against that loss, we had captured 120 of the enemy troops who were rounded up when we closed up on our main body. Some were wounded but I never heard how many had been killed. I also never heard what the total casualties of the Cavalry Brigade were.

While we were charging the Boers on this flank, the Infantry – the Berkshires and Royal Fusiliers – had advanced and managed to capture some Boer positions on our right beyond the town of Colesberg together with the assistance of our artillery.

Thus AJ Montgomery’s war for the Battle of Colesberg 

I forgot to relate that Lieutenant Milbanke had been recommended for the Victoria Cross for this action during the fighting at Colesberg. It happened one day when our troop was on outpost duty and Corporal Barclay of the 2nd troop had been instructed to reconnoitre a stretch of rough veld in front of us when he and 3 men were trapped by a fairly large party of the enemy. Corporal Barclay’s horse was shot from under him and he himself was wounded rather badly. When the patrol started returning the fire, Milbanke heard the fusillade, saw through his field glasses what was happening. Milbanke did not wait a moment but dashed out of cover, drawing his sword. We were frightened to fire back at the enemy in case we hit one of our own men. We could see him charging at them, his sword flashing in the sun, when a burst of rifle fire broke out from the bed of the dry water course where the enemy were located.

 

Then, to our relief, we saw our Lieutenant appear at a hard gallop with Corporal Barclay holding on behind. They managed to safely return to our Troop but Milbanke had suffered a serious bullet wound in his groin and the Corporal one through both his thighs. Miraculously, they both recovered from their wounds and were able to join our Troop again at Bloemfontein. We only hear afterwards that the 3 other men in the patrol had been captured as they attempted to crawl away, being horses either being killed or badly wounded.

AJ Montgomery: Part 2 – Survivor of the SS Ismore Ship Wreck in 1899

Sources

Hand written memoirs by AJ Montgomery

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

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