In order to better understand the focus of today’s entry, we have to better understand the concept of “yeomanry”. I’ve talked about yeomanry before now, largely in the context of the 1798 Rebellion, but I’ve never gone into specifics.
A “yeoman”, historically speaking, was the owner and cultivator of a small estate, sometimes dubbed a “freeholder”. From there comes the “yeomanry”, which could be simplified as being a cavalry militia service, raised, equipped and commanded by landed gentry, subsidised by the state. The yeomanry as a military unit sprang up in Britain during the French Republican and Napoleonic Wars as a means of bolstering home defence, with the British Army’s regular cavalry units engaged overseas. The yeomanry were expected to act in concert with regular forces to engage threats on home soil, just like the United Irishmen in 1798. The yeomanry, being, of course, civilians who trained part-time and had little practical experience of combat, had decidedly mixed records when push came to shove, more notable for their roles in quelling civil disturbances, like in the “Peterloo Massacre” of 1819, than anything else. By 1838, the yeomanry had largely ceased to exist.
The Boer War granted the yeomanry the chance to be relevant once again. As discussed last time, the Boers excelled as mounted infantry, using their lifetime of experience at horsemanship to great effect in terms of rapid mobility. The limited British regular cavalry were not suited to counter-act this, still being trained in the manner of the Brigades that rode to slaughter at Balaclava. Such opportunities were rare in the Transvaal and Orange Free State. In the early months of the war, it became dreadfully apparent how out-matched the British were when it came to such forces, and how useful a light infantry contingent could be in the wide-open spaces of South Africa. The British regular army could not supply such forces quickly, and so the Empire looked elsewhere, both to the volunteers of colonies like Australia and New Zealand, and to the long-neglected yeomanry.
A warrant issued in the last days of 1899 created the “Imperial Yeomanry”. Existing yeomanry units were asked to supply companies of 115 men each, with gear and horse. These were the days of “Black Week” when patriotic fervour and support for the war effort reached a crescendo, as much to do with revenging the setbacks as dictating politics in South Africa. The new Yeomanry found itself with no shortage of volunteers from the middle and upper-class, many of them coming from Irish estates. Despite formally strict requirements in terms of competence with horses and arms, the Imperial Yeomanry would end up accepting a great many unsuitable candidates, who were soon on a boat to South Africa. Between February and April of 1900, over 10’000 of them would arrive, organized into 20 battalions of four companies each.
Many of these light cavalry units were sent into the veld soon after arrival, despite the inadequate training most had received. They were used as reconnaissance units and scouts, but their role was limited owing to their inexperience with both military operations and the local area. Men who had gotten used to riding horses in the Irish countryside found the vastness of the South African plains, under a frequently baking sun, a very different proposition. Still, the first serious Yeomanry engagement boded well, as elements of the 3rd and 10th battalions rounded up a Boer force at Boshof on April 3rd 1900, their enemy largely consisting of Dutch and German troops commanded by a French count. It was nearly two months later, on the 27th of May, when the next serious clash between Yeomanry and Boer took place. This one would not go quite so well, and the larger situation surrounding it provides a glimpse at both the failures of the British command in the Boer War and one of the last meaningful actions of the war carried out by an Irish unit before the devolution into guerrilla struggle.
The 13th Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry was commanded by a Lt-Colonel Basil Spragge, and three of its four companies were almost entirely Irish (with a mostly Protestant make-up). Among their number were very notable men: the 45th Company was commanded by Thomas Pakenham, the Earl of Longford, who would later die during the Gallipoli landings; Charles Clements, the Earl of Leitrim, who would run guns for the Ulster Volunteers during the First World War and whose grandfather had been assassinated during the Land War; James Craig, the future Lord Craigavon who would become Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister in 1921; and Sir John Powers, of Powers whiskey, one of Dublin’s most significant men and employers.
So well off were these yeomanry that they were known as the “Irish Hunt Company”. Most of this force were men of means, and many of them contributed what pay their got to military charity, being present in South Africa out of patriotism and an urge for adventure. While some were part of regular cavalry units and were “attached” to the Yeomanry, the unit at large had little preparation for what they were about to face.
The campaign the 13th got sucked into was one of hide and seek. The capture of Bloemfontein had not ended the war as Roberts had hoped, with the Orange Free State simply moving their government, first to Kroonstad to the north, then Lindley to the west of Kroonstad, which were all abandoned in turn when the British got too close, the Boers retreating to the next town, and the next, making a mockery of the British efforts to reduce the war to a game of capturing capitals. The initial capture of Lindley took place on the 19th of May, by a force led by General Ian Hamilton and including young Winston Churchill: the future Prime Minister noted the fiercely pro-Boer nature of the town, advising a local British couple to stow any Union Jack’s until a proper garrison had arrived. Hamilton’s force moved on quickly in pursuit of the retreating Boers.
Coming in his wake were troops under the command of General Henry Colville, who thus far in the war had not proven himself a military genius, having been in a position to help the British defeated at Sanna’s Post but refusing to act. Colvile was meant to be mopping up any Boer’s showing their faces after Hamilton’s advance. He and his men were in Lindley on the 26th of May.
The 13th Imperial Yeomanry were supposed to be with them – it has been suggested that the order to rendezvous there was a Boer subterfuge, as they had a sympathiser working the telegraph line, and Colvile would later deny sending any such orders – , but owing to delays in their being released from training camps and problems with transport, they never marched with Colvile, and were tasked with catching up with him themselves, moving out from Kroonstad on horseback, 75km’s from Lindley. Going at a reasonable pace, they approached Lindley on the 27th, just in time to see the distant dust of Colvile’s force, already departed.
The Boers had done what they had become adapt at doing, and just gotten out of the way of the regulars. With their departure, they moved back in. The Lindley region had been the command of a Marthinus Prinsloo, with additional men under Piet De Wet – Christian De Wet’s younger brother – stationed to the north. They had already re-occupied Lindley when Spragge and his 500 men got near. They opened fire, and Spragge pulled back.
Much of what happened next revolved around what Spragge, a career soldier from the regular military, did next. He had arms and ammunition for a fight, but only a day’s rations, having fully expecting to join up with Colvile’s larger force by that time. He could stay and fight, he could try and outflank Lindley and continue on after Colvile, or he could have headed back towards Kroonstad. Moving in either direction carried the risk of Boer attack out in the open, and the Boers were better horsemen (and fighters) than the Yeomanry, which Spragge presumably realized. Retreating back to Kroonstad did not mesh with the orders to become part of Colvile’s column, and would have carried some degree of embarrassment with it: the 13th, with its landed make-up, being especially susceptible to notions of honour and battlefield bravery. So, Spragge decided to pick a spot, dig-in, hold off the Boers and await either relief from nearby allies or a Boer retreat.
There was a spot, just to the north-west of Lindley, that was ideal for such an effort: a series of kopje’s spread out over a few kilometres that could not be easily approached if defended. Water and pasture was available in valleys between the kopje’s, as well as a stone farmhouse that could be used as an outpost and hospital. Spragge scattered the companies under his command to the kopje heights and other defensible positions, and sent messengers after Colvile seeking assistance.
These would reach Colvile the following morning. If the British General had turned his column around and marched the 29 kilometres back to Lindley everything that happened after would presumably have been avoided, but Colvile did not do this. Some have blamed Spragge’s wording in his message as not stressing sufficiently the danger of his position, but regardless Colvile did not feel he could go back, as a Boer force was between him and Spragge. He instructed Spragge instead to retreat back to Kroonstad, orders that did not reach Spragge. Spragge’s situation did reach the ears of other nearby commanders, who sent messages to others in a position to help, most notably Paul Methuen, marching with a column out of Kroonstad. For the meantime though, Spragge was on his own.
It took a night for the Boer’s to get into a position surrounding Spragge, and firing on the kopje’s commenced on the morning of the 28th of May. Both sides exchanged small-arms fire, with the Yeomanry able to bring a Colt Machine Gun, an early model of the armament, into use as part of the defence. For the rest of the day and then the next, the pattern continued, neither side having artillery readily available. The Boers maintained their fire, the Yeomanry piled up rocks to improve positions. Several casualties did occur for the British at this time, but surrender was not thought of yet.
On the 29th the Boers set fire to the veld near the Yeomanry positions in a bid to drive the enemy horses from shelter, but unfavourable winds nixed this plan. Spragge sent out more messages pleading for help and ordered sorties against nearby buildings and farms believed to be held by the Boers, correctly in this case. On the 30th the Boers set fire to the veld again, this time succeeding in bathing the British position in smoke.
By then the younger De Wet had arrived with his men, the Boers deciding that observing Colvile and waiting for an opportunity to attack the British general was less likely to garner a success than focusing on the beleaguered Yeomanry. De Wet had brought his own machine gun and, more crucially, artillery pieces. The Boers tightened the noose gradually, encroaching on land set aside from the grazing of the horses and some captured sheep. A small ridge ahead of the larger position was captured as part of this process: an initial Yeomanry counter-attack forced the Boers back before being surrounded in turn and forced to surrender. The following day, the 31st, the Lord Longford led a bayonet charge on the ridge, successfully re-taking it again, before being obliged to retreat in the face of Boer artillery.
Just as at Reddersburg, the falling shells made little physical impact on the defences, but its psychological effect was dramatic. Prinsloo took advantage of the shells and made a successful attack on the southern slopes of the kopje’s, with the yeomanry contracting backwards. What remained of the fighting consisted of a series of piecemeal gunfights as position after position surrendered, the gradual nature of it providing controversy: one white flag raised did not equal the entire force surrendering, and there was anger from both sides as firing continued from elsewhere, the Boers at the apparent “trick”, and the British at the idea of surrender. It was all academic anyway: with half of the kopje’s in Boer hands and the British wagons and horses captured, Spragge knew the game was up, and surrendered his entire force that afternoon. 23 of the Yeomanry were dead, and a further 57 injured. The dead included Sir John Power, the wounded James Craig and Lord Longford, hit in the neck but miraculously surviving. The Boer losses are disputed, but were probably quite low. The prisoners were rounded up and marched off to captivity, but for most of them this would be quite short: the Boers, be they from the Transvaal or the Orange Free State, were in no position to be handling prisoners, and the coming capture of Johannesburg and Pretoria would see the liberation of most (as the war went on, British soldiers made prisoner were usually just stripped of equipment and released).
Relief had been relatively close at hand, through the force of General Methuen, made up substantially of other Yeomanry. Spragge had sent him a message indicating he thought he could hold out until the 2nd of June; as it was, Methuen was approaching Lindley on the 1st of June when he received word of the surrender the previous day. Part of his column did attack the retreating Boers, attempting to intercept the prisoners and captured wagons, with partial success, before being ordered the break off. Lindley was re-occupied, with the British finding many of the wounded who had been left behind.
Owing to the multitude of failures on the road to and during the fighting at Lindley, the result was essentially inevitable. The orders Spragge had received looked questionable, though he was exonerated from following them later. He rode only supplied for a few days in terms of food. Colvile refused to stay and wait for the Yeomanry, and then refused to ride back and assist them. Spragge had options other than a fight at Lindley, but refused to take them. The Boers were allowed to encircle and then push in on the British position throughout the fighting, and nearby British commanders other than Colvile did not respond quick enough. The Boers, supposed to be defeated if Lord Roberts’ statements were any indication, took advantage of their opportunities, used artillery to proper effect and captured a force of nearly 500 men with little casualties sustained.
In truth, the stand of the 13th Imperial Yeomanry had been gallant enough by the standards of the day, but there was some embarrassment by what had occurred there, namely because of the death and capture of men who were part of the House of Lords, and a perception that they had been abandoned by General Colvile. The reaction back home was mixed: Irish nationalists, naturally pro-Boer, would have celebrated the result of Lindley as a humiliation for the Protestant Unionists circles that had formed the 13th, while the British military was soon arranging numerous inquiries. Colvile took the brunt of the blame for what had happened, and ended his career in Gibraltan obscurity.
While his abandonment of Spragge’s small force was somewhat callous, he had ordered Spragge to retreat to Kroonstad, a prudent move, but this did not get through to the Yeomanry. With the lack of other instructions, Spragge would have been better off attempting a break-out back in a westerly direction, where he would have been rising in the direction of Methuen and relief. Spragge also severely over-estimated the amount of time he could hold out at the Lindley position, especially when one considers his limited food supplies. While Colvile is hardly worthy of full exoneration, it is clear that Spragge deserves some share of the blame.
The entire affair was another marker that the Boer War was not going to end as neat and tidily as the British hoped it would. Conventional fighting was drawing to a close, but the guerrilla war would roll on and on.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.