Diary Extracts of Lt.-Col. L. Buchan, April 26-May 26, 1900. — On the 26th April the battalion reached Thabanchu Village, a march of six miles, and was detailed to hold Thaba Mountain, some three miles to the south, with one section of R.H. A. and a company of Mounted Infantry. This latter force entrenched itself strongly for the night.
Returning to the village the next afternoon, two companies, (‘B’ and ‘D’) had to be detailed for special duty with the Gordon Highlanders to rescue a body of Kitchener’s Horse which was reported as being surrounded on a kopje about five miles N.E. while, the remainder of the brigade was ordered to be ready to move out to the support of this force if necessary.
On the 28th April, the battalion (6 Companies), marched N.E. in the dark at 5 a.m., joining the Cornwalls and Shropshires with artillery and mounted infantry. After marching about six miles, reached a very large kopje and were met with a good deal of firing. Gradually advanced with remainder of force and cleared the kopje about 10 a.m. The enemy were in large force all about the neighbouring hills on Eden Mountain where they had large guns playing on our force. At 4 p.m. the battalion was ordered to scale the Eden Mountain and hold it against a force of 3,000 Boers, who were reported on the far side of it. Two companies of Cornwalls did likewise on our left. At 5.40 p.m. reached, after very hard climbing, a sort of plateau about half way up to the top. It was by that time dark but proceeded to build ‘séances’ and prepare to hold the position on a front of about half a mile. Whilst doing this it became dark and very cold. At about 7 p.m. received orders to gradually withdraw quietly and return to Thabanchu. This was a very difficult operation owing to complete darkness, and exceedingly precipitous and rugged character of the mountain.
About 8.30 p.m. all were collected and formed up at the foot, and after a long and circuitous march, in the darkness, the battalion (6 companies) reached bivouac at Thabanchu at 11 p.m. In arranging for and in effecting the descent of the mountain and in collecting the several companies and finding the way back to Thabanchu in the dark, T was very ably and successfully assisted by Lieuts. Hodgins and Ogilvy, and so reported to the G.O.C. Brigade. On return to bivouac found ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies, they having, with the Gordons, been led in the wrong direction the previous night and returned to Thabanchu during the day. The day following was one of rest.
On Monday 30th April the battalion marched at 6 a.m. for Hout Nek being third battalion in the brigade. Our mounted screen was stopped by the enemy about ten miles out at the Nek. Detailed ‘E’ and ‘F’ Companies as escort for guns (field). The Gordons were sent to take Thaba Mountain on our left front. The Shropshires to hill on right front. Very heavy firing all round. At about 1 p.m. the Boer shells reached transport, which was laagered about two miles in our rear, and as it moved off the shell fire was directed at the battalion and the first line transport and the battery where we lay. All had to shift at once and whilst doing so the Gordons were reported as requiring assistance in their attack on Thaba. ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies were detailed to support the Gordons, and ‘B’ Company to cover our right flank, from which direction the Boer shell fire was coming. Shortly after, two more companies were required to help in the attack on Thaba, and ‘G’ and ‘H’ Companies were sent. Again two more companies were required and ‘E’ and ‘F’ were withdrawn from gun escort and sent.
About 4 p.m. two more companies were required in this attack, and I proceeded with ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies, the only two left, which had been held in reserve. On approaching the Thaba Mountain, which is from 300 to 400 feet high, all the companies had to pass through a zone of about 600 yards in width which was swept by a directly enfilading shell fire from a heavy Boer gun about three quarters of a mile to our right, as well as a rifle fire from the mountain to our front. This was a very trying experience for all, but fortunately the Boers were using segment shells, apparently with mostly percussion fuse, and the effect of the burst was almost entirely lost. It was in the advance of ‘D’ Company across this zone that Pte. Cotton was killed, as previously reported by cable.
The shell fire swept the face of the mountain we had to climb, but the nature of the ground there gave opportunities for cover the plain had not afforded. On reaching the crest of the mountain, the rifle fire from the far side of the sort of table land top was very heavy but the cover was good. We found the Gordons and some few Shropshires hanging on to the crest. I at once set about getting our companies sorted out and building ‘séances’ and by dark, about 6 p.m., had them fairly well arranged, orders being to hold the mountain at any cost.
Rifle fire kept up till late in the night, and finally all settled down to pass the night as best we could without food, water or blankets or coats in the bitter cold. We lay with magazines charged and bayonets fixed till morning. At sunrise of the 1st May, having arranged our companies on the left of the Gordons, I advanced our line to clear the top of the mountain towards the south-western extremity, a company of the Gordons advancing about 200 yards to their front. By about 9.30 a.m. we had cleared the mountain, with furthest extremity about three quarters of a mile distant. ‘B’ Company, under Captain Burstall, receiving the heaviest fire and doing the hardest fighting. It was in this work that Lt. Ross and five men were wounded, as reported by cable. At 2.30 p.m. received orders to join the force on the plain, and having done so, marched into bivouac at Jacobrust, about five miles, reaching there at 6.15 p.m., where all ranks got their first meal since 4 a.m. previous day. Specially mentioned Captain Burstall for his plucky conduct on this occasion in my report to G.O.C. Brigade.
The 2nd of May was a day of rest and on it a change was made in the formation and name of the force with which the battalion was operating. This force was still to remain under the command of Major General Ian Hamilton, but to be augmented and named the Winburg Column. Its composition as such became as follows: —
- Two Batteries of Horse Artillery.
- 2nd Cavalry Brigade.
- Four Corps of Mounted Infantry.
- Five Batteries of Field Artillery.
- Two five-inch guns.
- 19th Brigade.
- 21st Brigade.
On the 3rd of May we marched fifteen miles, and on the day following continued our march at 8 a.m. At 10 a.m. of this day the enemy was met and an artillery duel of some four hours was fought. In this engagement the infantry took no part, save that it was kept moving about while it lasted. The march was resumed in the afternoon and bivouac was made at Welkom, some twelve miles from the point of starting in the morning. Winburg was reached about 4 p.m. of the 5th, and on the day following a further march of 8 miles brought the battalion to Taailboschkoil, where the draft of 100 men which left Bloemfontein on the 1st of May, joined. For the next two days the battalion rested, moving on to Bloemplaats, 11 miles, on the 9th May. Here we heard a good deal of artillery firing going on in the direction of Zand River, some 3 miles to the front of us, and orders were received for an attack the next morning. ‘A’ and ‘H’ Companies were detailed as escort to 5 in. guns. On the 10th May four companies (B, D, E, F) paraded at 5.45 a.m. as advanced guard to brigade, and were sent off to hold extreme right flank of position at Zand Kiver. Getting to top of rise about half a mile from river met by heavy fire from river bushes and dongas. Sent Captain Burstall forward with half of ‘B’ Company to scout and feel the way, remainder following slowly. About 250 yards from river Captain Burstall was forced to stop by the very heavy fire. The remaining half of his company was at once sent to reinforce his line, and ‘D’ Company, under Lt. Lawless, was sent to prolong his line to the right, the other two companies being held in support.
All the remainder of the brigade was by this time one and a half miles to our left assisting the 21st Brigade in the main attack. The firing at us from the river bed grew rapidly in strength, and it was only by the pluck and determination of our men that we were able to hold on to our position and keep down the enemy’s fire as much as possible. The moment anyone, an officer, a stretcher bearer or an ammunition carrier, showed himself above the ground the enemy’s fire developed in great strength.
About noon ‘C’ and ‘G’ Companies came up from escort duty with the guns, and were held in reserve. At about 1.30 p.m., I went over to Major General Smith Dorrien, who, I heard, was near by, and explained our situation and asked for a section of a battery to be sent to shell the river bed and bushes and dongas. In about an hour these were sent from a position they had been to our right rear, where they had been firing: since about 2 p.m., assisting some mounted infantry. The battery fire, with that of our men, soon cleared the river in our front, and about 4 p.m. we were enabled to remove our wounded and bury the one man killed, Pte. Lloyd (cabled from Kroonstadt about 12th May). The six companies were marched into the drift about dusk, two of them. ‘C’ and ‘F,’ having meantime and until then been on river picquet.
We bivouacked at the drift that night. ‘A’ and ‘H’ Companies have gone on with the 5-in. guns to Petersburg. Specially mentioned Captain Burstall and Lieut. Lawless in my report to the G.O.C. Brigade (I9th) for their gallant and determined conduct in action. The G.O.C. subsequently informed me that we had over 800 Boers opposed to us ail day. We had only 100 men in our firing line. On the 11th of May we had a long march of 22 miles, reaching our bivouac at Tevistriet at 8.30 p.m., and on the following day did 21 miles, which brought us to Kroonspuit, within 4 miles of Kroonstadt, where the main army under Lord Roberts lay.
On the 14th and 15th of May we remained at Kroonspuit. Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief, inspecting the battalion on the latter day. Our march was resumed on the 15th in the direction of Lindley, and a dad drift over the Valsch River detained us so long as to keep our march down to 6 miles for that day. On the 16th we made 12 miles and on the 17th 16 miles. On the l8th of May the 21st Brigade went on to Lindley, while the 19th Brigade stopped short of it, and I was ordered, with a half battalion of Royal Canadians, two guns and some mounted infantry, to attack a farmhouse near by, from which there had been some ‘sniping.’
On our approach the enemy fled, but large quantities of food and fodder were collected from the farm. The march on the 19th was 9 miles to Quagi’a Spruit, in the vicinity of which the enemy was seen in the hills. This march was made by the 19th Brigade alone. Sunday, the 20th was a fatiguing day, as we chased the enemy all day and did not get into bivouac until dark at Boschran. Here the 21st Brigade joined us.
On the 21st May we marched 11 miles to Witpoort. We began our march on 22nd May at 6.30 a.m., the battalion being advanced guard, and reached the neighbourhood of Heilbron about 10 a.m. Firing began in front and the battalion formed for attack, advancing toward the town. The enemy retired west followed by the mounted troops, and the battalion entered the town unopposed.
Piequets and guards were at once placed upon the town hall, post office and stores, and General Hamilton entered and took formal possession. At 9.30 a.m. of the 23rd the column left the town, the enemy at once taking possession of it again and capturing Surgeon Captain Fiset and servant, who had been left ill in the German hospital. Brigade halted at Elands Spruit for the night, having marched 11 miles On the 24th (Queen’s birthday) we met the main array under Lord Roberts near Prospect, on the railway, and then, turning north, moved to Vredeport Station where we went into bivouac at 1 p.m., having marched 14 miles.
A ration of rum was issued to the troops and with it the battalion drank Her Majesty’s health, gave three cheers and sang the National Anthem. The 25th found us again on the march, and after crossing the railway track we stopped to wait for a supply convoy. In the afternoon we moved on again in a N.W. direction and went into bivouac at Zwartbank at 7.30 p.m., having done only 9 miles. On the 26th May Lt.-Col. Otter rejoined the battalion and I handed it over to him.
Lieut.-Colonel Buchan’s Official Militia Department Report March Into Pretoria. — Ottawa, August 3rd, 1900. — The Militia Department has received a report from Lieutenant-Colonel Buchan for the period he was in command of the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, R. C. R. It is dated Florida, near Johannesburg, May 31st, and covers the period from April 26th to May 26th, inclusive, during which Lieutenant-Colonel Otter was disabled by his wounds. On April 27th, at 9.30 p. m., the Colonel detailed B and D Companies, who proceeded on special duty with the Gordon Highlanders to rescue a body of Kitchener’s Horse, reported lo be surrounded on a kopje about five miles northeast of Thaba N’Chu Treck. At n p.m. he received orders to march with the remainder of the brigade, at 5 a.m., to support the special duty force. On April 28th, they marched in the dark and joined the Cornwalls and Shropshires with artillery. After a six miles march they reached a very large kopje, and were met with a good deal of firing. They gradually advanced with the remainder of the force and cleared the kopje at 10 a. m. The enemy was in large force ail about the neighbouring hills and on Eden Mountain, where they had large guns playing on our force. At 4 p.m. the battalion was ordered to scale the Eden Mountain and hold it against a force of 3,000 Boers, who where reported on the far side of it, two companies of the Cornwalls doing likewise on our left. At 5 p.m. we reached, after a very hard climb, a sort of plateau, about half way up to the top. It was by that time dark, but we proceeded rapidly to build trenches and prepare to hold a position on a front of a half a mile. Whilst doing this it became dark, and very cold.
About 7 p.m. we received orders to withdraw quietly and retire to Thaba N’Chu. This was a very difficult operation, owing to the darkness and precipitous and rugged character of the mountain. About 8.30 p.m. ail were collected and formed up at the foot and after a long and circuitous march in the darkness the battalion reached the bivouac at Thaba N’Chu at 11 p.m. In arranging for and effecting the descent of the mountain and in Connecting the several companies and finding the way back in the dark, I was very ably and successfully assisted by Lieutenants Hodgins and Ogilvy, and so reported to the G. O. C.
Captain Burstall Mentioned. — He specially mentioned in Buchan’s report to the G. O. C. brigade, Captain Burstall, of B Company, for his plucky conduct. On May 3rd the battalion met the enemy at Welkon Nek, about 10 a. m. The action was over by 2 p.m., being mostly an artillery duel, our mounted troops chasing flying Boers. Captain Carpenter, with Lieutenants Winter and Boyd, and 94 men of 2nd draft, joined the battalion of Winburg on May 6th, after very hard marching to catch up. The same day they marched to Taaiboschkuil, where they remained till the 9th. On May 10th the battalion was sent off to hold the extreme right flank of the position at Zand River. Getting to the top of the rise about half a mile from the river we were met by heavy fire from the river bushes and dongas, sent Captain Burstall forward with half of B Company to scout and feel the way. About 250 yards from the river Captain Burstall was forced to stop by the very heavy fire, the remaining half of the company was at once sent to reinforce his line, and D Company, under Lieutenant Lawless, was sent to prolong his line to the right; the other two companies being held in support. All the remainder of brigade was at this time about a mile and a half on our left assisting the 21st brigade in the main attack. The fire at us from the river bed grew rapidly in strength and it was only by pluck and determination of our men that we were able to hold on to our position and keep down the enemy’s fire as much as possible. The moment any one, an officer, a stretcher bearer, or an ammunition carrier, showed himself above the ground the enemy’s fire developed in greater strength. About now C and G companies came up from gun escort duty and were held in reserve. About 1.30 p.m. I went over to Major-General Smith-Dorrien, who I heard, was near by, and explained our situation and asked for a section of a battery to be sent to shell the river bed bushes and dongas. In about an hour these were sent from a position they had occupied to one at the right rear where they had been since 2 p. m., assisting some mounted infantry. The battery fire, with that of our men, soon cleared the river in our front, and about 4 p.m. we were enabled to remove our wounded and bury the one man killed, Private Floyd. The six companies were marched into the drift about dusk, two of them, C and F, having meantime and till then been sent on a river picket. We bivouacked on a drift that night, A and H Companies having gone on with 5-inch guns to Ventersburg.
In connection with this Colonel Buchan specially mentioned Captain Burstall and Lieutenant Lawless in his report to G. O. C. brigade for their gallant and determined conduct. ‘G. O. C. subsequently informed me,’ continued Colonel Buchan, ‘we had over 800 Boers opposed to us ail day. We had only 100 men in our firing line.’ The remainder of report, which is voluminous, consists chiefly of details and of fighting at Heilbrun and the entry of the troops into the town under General Ivan Hamilton. On the Queen’s birthday, the battalion turned out in the evening and drank the health of Her Majesty in a ration of rum, giving three cheers for the Queen also for Major-General Smith-Dorrien, Ivan Hamilton and Lord Roberts, finishing by singing ‘God Save the Queen.’
Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrence Buchan, Royal Canadian Regiment, 1902 Extracts from lecture delivered at the Canadian Military Institute in Toronto, on the 3rd of February 1902. —…A lesson to be learned from that campaign is this: If Canada is to go on furnishing troops as these were, and as undoubtedly she will, it is absolutely necessary that some provision should be made for maintaining each regiment at something like its numerical strength in the field. The wastage through wounds and sickness in a hard campaign is enormous, and if drafts of fresh men are not continuously received the regiment soon drops down to such small numbers that it becomes an inefficient unit in a brigade, and is thrown out to do line of communication duty or something of that kind. At the time Lord Roberts inspected the Royal Canadian Regiment at Kroonstadt on the 14th May, out of 1,140 who left Canada there were only present on parade 415. That shows you the wastage that takes place, and in future arrangements should be made to provide for this and keep our ranks comparatively full all the time.
…A more important lesson to be learned from this campaign, in fact the most important of all, to my mind, is this; The absolute necessity of every officer, N.C.O. and man, being trained before he takes the field, to be a thoroughly practical rifle-shot. I mean by practical, one who can judge distance, fire accurately and quickly at either stationary or moving objects, and who in the excitement of battle remains cool enough to make effective use of his rifle under all circumstances; in fact, who is so accustomed to its use that there is no chance of what is sometimes called “buck fever” getting hold of him.