Reference: E-mail from W.R. Harris, based on posting to Canadian Army War Diary 25 Dec 99.
Subject: Boer War Engagements: requested engagement names were; Leliefontein, Israel’s Poort, Sunnyside Kopje, Dornkop, and Kalkheuwel Pass
References, extracts are given from the following publications:
1. "Brief History. The Royal Canadian Regiment" 12 Nov 1937
2. The Royal Canadian Regiment; 1883 – 1933, by R.C. Fetherstonaugh, originally published 1936 (commonly referred to as "Volume One of the Regimental History")
3. With the Royal Canadians, Stanley McKeown Brown, Toronto: The Publishers Syndicate, Ltd, 1900
4. The Canadian General: Sir William Otter, Desmond Morton, Toronto: Hakkert, 1974
(The Battle of Paardeburg has not been included in these notes as that battle is covered sufficiently is various sources.)
Compiled (scanning and OCR) by Michael M. O’Leary, 29 Dec 1999
In addition to minor skirmishes, the Battalion took part in the following actions while in South Africa:-
Paardeberg. 27th February. 1900.
Poplar Grove. 7th March, 1900.
Driefontein. 10th March, 1900.
Israel’s Poorte. 25th April, 1900.
Houts Nek. 1st May, 1900.
Zand River. 16th May, 1900.
Doorn Kop. 29th May, 1900.
Pretoria. 1st June, 1900.
Battle of Paardeburg – pp 107-117 (extracts not included)
The Poplar Grove position, against which the British army now advanced, was formidable in a high degree. It stretched on a front of approximately 13 miles diagonally astride the Modder River, with its right flank resting on the high hill named Leeuw Kop, its centre guarded by a flat-topped kopje known as Table Mountain, and the left resting on a group of hills known as the Seven Kopjes. On several of the more important of these hills, the Boers had mounted guns; and the presence in their midst of President Kruger, of the Transvaal, and President Steyn, of the Orange Free State, meant that the defence of the position was considered by their leaders to be of the utmost consequence.
As the British army advanced on March 7, the sight, for those who from elevated ground could view the operation as a whole, was one that will never be forgotten. As far as the eye could see, troops in extended order, with guns and cavalry escorts, were moving across the plain, until, as one officer wrote, "it seemed that the might of the whole Empire was marching to battle in an array more impressive than it is possible to describe."
Moving on the left of this formation, the 19th Brigade approached to within 5,000 yards of Leeuw Kop and halted to await orders. Naval guns on the right opened fire about 9 a.m. and promptly the Boers' guns on Leeuw Kop replied. In the artillery duel that followed, the Boer guns more than held their own and, had not their ammunition been defective, the British battery would have suffered severely. As it was, after some two hours, the naval guns were forced to retire, and the Royal Canadian Regiment was ordered to escort them.
Having carried out this duty, which involved a march of two miles to the right, the Canadians were ordered to join the Highland Brigade, which was advancing rapidly on the right of the Divisional front. After joining the Highland Brigade, the Royal Canadian Regiment accomplished a rapid 5-mile advance to Poplar Grove Drift.
Soon after reaching this position, the Regiment was ordered to swing across to the left and attack a line of small kopjes, where it was believed the Boers might offer stiff opposition. Moving against these minor hills, the Regiment encountered no defence and soon, as the line reached the top of Slaagslaagte ridge, the Boers were observed in full retreat. They had seen, as the officer previously mentioned had seen, what appeared to be the might of the Empire advancing against them and had decided that in flight lay their only hope of safety. Accordingly, despite the presence of their political leaders and the knowledge that an important defence of Bloemfontein was being abandoned, they retreated precipitately, leaving the Poplar Grove position to Lord Roberts and his army.
Having endured in the action at Poplar Grove the strain of marching more than twenty miles under a blazing sun, the Royal Canadian Regiment experienced one of the coldest nights of the South African campaign. Blankets, great coats, and supplies had been left behind when the Regiment marched at 4 a.m. and could not be brought forward until the shivering night of March 7 had nearly ended. It was, accordingly, a weary and famished battalion which saw the sun rise on the morning of March 8.
Fortunately, the Regiment on this day was not called upon for any arduous duty and was permitted to continue at rest on March 9 until the afternoon, when the 9th Division was withdrawn about three miles to Poplar Grove Drift. Here it crossed to the south bank of the Modder River by pontoon ferries. Next morning, March 10, Lord Roberts restarted the movement of his forces towards Bloemfontein, with the 19th Brigade forming part of the centre of his 3-column formation. The 6th Division, of the northern column, encountered the enemy at Abraham's Kraal on this day and effected important captures of men and materiel. The operations, now known as the Battle of Driefontein, involved some assistance by the centre column, which, after a march of approximately twenty miles, reached Driefontein about 5 p.m.
After a fortnight's rest in Bloemfontein, the 2nd l~ (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, and the other battalions of the 19th Brigade were ordered to march eight miles to the eastward to Springfield Farm and take over the garrison duties of the 18th Brigade. As the 19th Brigade would return to Bloemfontein in about three days, the battalions were ordered to take with them as little baggage and equipment as possible.
Obeying these orders, the Royal Canadian Regiment paraded on the morning of April 21, left its camp standing with all extra kit, left behind 3 officers and 150 men, in addition to the enteric fever cases in hospital, and, with a strength of 27 officers and 584 other ranks, marched with the 19th Brigade to Springfield. Relieving the 18th Brigade in this position, the 19th Brigade spent an uneventful 36 hours and was preparing to return to Bloemfontein when, at 8 o'clock on the morning of April 23, orders were received to proceed to Boesman's Kop.
Marching off at 11 a.m., the Brigade proceeded past Boesman's Kop towards the Waterworks, where mounted infantry were driving the enemy back from positions on the banks of the Modder River. Camping that night at Klip Kraal, the Royal Canadian Regiment advanced in fighting formation on the morning of April 24, crossed the Modder River, and at about 1 p.m. climbed Momema Mountain, whence the Boers had retreated shortly before. At night the Battalion withdrew from the heights and bivouacked at the foot of the hill.
In this position, the Battalion learned that the 9th Division had been reduced in strength and that the 19th Brigade had been incorporated into a column, then under the command of General Ian Hamilton, which included also "P" Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, Marshall's Mounted Infantry, two guns, and the 21st Infantry Brigade. On the augmentation of this force, MajorGeneral Smith-Dorrien assumed the tactical command of the combined l9th and 21st Brigades, the command of the l9th passing simultaneously to Colonel J. Spens, of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry.
Even before this, it had become clear that, during the enforced halt of Lord Roberts's army at Bloemfontein, the Boers had reorganized their forces. They had been dismayed by the crushing defeat of General Cronje at Paardeberg and the subsequent rough handling of their forces at Poplar Grove and Driefontein. But they had recovered from the shock of these engagements, strong columns had been organized, and these, as in the attack on General Broadwood's force at Thabanchu and Sannah's Post, were in some instances assuming the offensive It was, in the first instance, to oppose these commandos that General Ian Hamilton's column had been formed.
At 9 a.m. on April 25, the l9th Brigade, as part of this column, moved off from the position occupied overnight, with the Royal Canadian Regiment as advance guard. After marching for about six miles, the infantry halted, while the mounted infantry and artillery reconnoitred and shelled a series of kopjes to the front and on the flanks. Some hours later, Lieut.-Col. Otter was ordered to advance the Royal Canadian Regiment on a front of about 2,000 yards and seize a kopje immediately ahead, while the mounted infantry and the remainder of the l9th Brigade detoured to the left to threaten the flank of the enemy, who held all the kopjes round about.
With the Battalion formed into four double companies in extended order, with intervals of 12 paces, and 150 yards between double companies, the advance was made at 3 p.m., the unit's formation being:
|First Line: "G" Coy.......|
(Lieut. F. C. Jones)
(Capt. H. B. Stairs)
|2nd Line: "E" Coy........ |
(Capt. C. K. Fraser)
(Lieut. L. LeDuc)
|3rd Line: "C" Coy.....|
(Capt. R. K. Barker)
(Capt. S. M. Rogers)
|4th Line: "B" Coy|
(Capt. H. E. Burstall)
(Lieut. M. G. Blanchard)
The first and second lines were in charge of Major O. C. C. Pelletier; the 3rd and 4th were commanded by Lieut.-Col. L. Buchan; and Lieut.-Col. Otter, who advanced with the first wave, was in command of the whole formation.
Sweeping forward for about a mile, the Battalion reached a wire fence, which extended across the front about 600 yards from the main kopje of the enemy's position. Here a ditch afforded protection for some of the line from the heavy rifle fire now encountered. Halting, in accordance with General Smith-Dorrien's explicit orders, the Regiment returned the enemy fire in as heavy volume as possible and awaited orders to close in. At this stage of the operation, Lieut.-Col. Otter, cool and at his best when under fire, found it necessar~ to stand for a moment to view the enemy position. Probably his doing so attracted some crack shot in the Boer force, for a bullet tore through his chin and neck and another penetrated the badge on his right shoulder. Though painfully wounded, Lieut.-Col. Otter was not disabled and continued in command of the Battalion throughout the remainder of the day. The efficacy of his work, despite his wound, is attested by General Smith-Dorrien, who, in his FortyEi~ht Years' Service, has recorded that "Colonel Otter, as usual, handled his battalion perfectly."
Meanwhile, under heavy fire from the Boer line, the Royal Canadian Regiment lay in the position reached immediately before the Commanding Officer was wounded. After three-quarters of an hour, the enemy fire slackened and Lieut.-Col. Otter, judging correctly that this indicated an intention to withdraw, ordered his Battalion forward. By 4.40 p.m., General Smith-Dorrien has written, "we were penetrating the position everywhere; the Canadians were charging forward--and I ordered up the guns--and signalled back for our baggage."
Reaching their final objective, the Canadians occupied the Boer position and there bivouacked for the night. Considering the sharpness of the brief action in which they had engaged, casualties had been light, totalling only Private J. Defoe, of "H" Coy., killed by a bullet through the head, and the Commanding Officer and two other ranks wounded.
Referring to the wounding of the Commanding Officer in this engagement, known as "Israel's Poorte," Sergeant Hart-McHarg wrote as follows: "A great deal of regret was expressed on all sides over Colonel Otter's wound, and everyone was glad it was not more serious. Colonel Otter was always verv cool under fire, and inspired confidence in whatever part of the field he happened to be; his handling of the Regiment at Israel's Poorte was specially commended by General Ian Hamilton." In his turn, Lieut.-Col. Otter, in reporting upon the engagement, brought to the notice of higher authority the services of his Acting Adjutant, Lieut. J. H. C. Ogilvy, whose energy and coolness had been most conspicuous.
When Lieut.-Col. Otter was removed to hospital on the night of April 25, 1900, command of the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, was assumed by Lieut.-Col. L. Buchan, who, on the following morning, was ordered to march the Battalion to Thabanchu village, six miles away. Subsequently, the Battalion, in co-operation with two Royal Horse Artillery guns and a company of Mounted Infantry, was dispatched to Thaba Mountain, three miles to the south, with instructions to fortify this position and hold it that night against any attack that might occur.
Having fulfilled this mission without notable incident, the Battalion returned on the afternoon of April 27 to Thabanchu village, whence "B" and "D" Companies were dispatched with the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, to the support of a detachment of Kitchener's Horse, said to be surrounded on a kopje five miles to the north-east. Misled by unskilful guides, the Gordon Highlanders and the Canadian companies
Having absorbed [a] reinforcement [draft], the Battalion rested for two days and then, on May 9, marched 11 miles to Bloemplaats. Camping near this village, the men heard the sound of guns in the direction of the Zand River, some 3 miles away, a further indication that hostilities were in progress being afforded by a herd of antelope, which, terrified by shell and rifle fire, streamed through the Canadians' lines. Efforts to seize some of these animals proved fruitless and shots fired at them succeeded only in wounding a mounted infantry man, whose injury resulted in stern orders that all firing at game must cease forthwith.
The next day, May 10, witnessed operations on a front of approximately 25 miles, as the British forced the passage of the Zand River. "A" and "H" Companies, Royal Canadian Regiment, having been detailed as an escort to the 5-inch guns, four companies ("B," "D," "E," and "F") paraded at 5.45 a.m. as advanced guard of the 19th Brigade and were dispatched to hold the extreme right flank of the Zand River position.
Reaching the crest of some rising ground about half a mile from the river, the companies were checked by heavy fire. Capt. Burstall with half of "B" Coy. then advanced to reconnoitre the position, while the remainder of the formation moved slowly forward in the rear. When about 250 yards from the river bank, the advanced half of "B" Coy. was again checked, whereupon Lieut.-Col. Buchan ordered the other half-company up as reinforcements and dispatched "D" Coy., under Lieut. W. T. Lawless, to prolong the front line to the right.
At this stage of the battle, the Royal Canadian Regiment was conducting a minor operation almost of its own as the remaining battalions of the l9th Brigade were in action about a mile and a half to the left. As the Regiment guarded the right flank of the whole British force, it was essential that its position should be maintained, regardless of what opposition was encountered
Realizing how the situation in this respect stood, the Boers increased the volume of their fire and it was with the greatest difficulty that the Canadian companies held their ground. Their position was visible from the Boer line and the slightest movement by an officer, stretcher bearer, or ammunition carrier, brought intense rifle fire, which died down only when the movement ceased.
About noon, "C" and "G" Companies, which, in addition to "A" and "H" Companies, had been detached on gun-escort duty, reached the Battalion's position and were ordered into reserve. Somewhat later, Lieut.-Col Buchan sought Major-General Smith-Dorrien and, explaining the situation, asked that guns be sent to shell the river bank and dongas on the Battalion's front. Arriving about 2 p.m. in answer to this request, a section of guns opened a fire, which, in conjunction with the Battalion's rifle fire and the success of operations elsewhere, soon cleared the river bank of the enemy
Relieved from the heavy fire of the 800 Boers who had held the river frontage, the Royal Canadian Regiment buried Private F. G. W. Floyd, who had been killed brought in Private G. W. Leonard, who had been fatally wounded, attended to the wounds of Privates A. McLean and E. Armstrong, then marched into the Zand River drift and there bivouacked for the night. In reporting upon the events of the day, Lieut.-Col. Buchan noted the fine conduct of all ranks and mentioned in particular the work of Capt. H. E. Burstall and Lieut. W. T. Lawless, who had displayed courage and ability of the highest order.
HAVING brought to a conclusion the operations in the Orange Free State, Lord Roberts invaded the Transvaal. In the final phase of the Free State operations, General Ian Hamilton's column had advanced on the right flank of the main army. Now the column was transferred to, and ordered to advance upon, the left flank. As part of this column, the Royal Canadian Regiment shared in the advance, under the command of Lieut.-Col. Otter, who, having recovered from the wound received in action on April 25, re~oined the Battalion on May 26.
Marching out from Zwartbank that morning, with a strength of 25 officers and 418 non-commissioned officers and men, the Regiment reached the Vaal River at Boschbank at ~.10 p.m. and, as the advanced guard of the column, had the honour of being the first infantry battalion of the main army to cross the river and enter the Transvaal. No opposition was offered to the crossing and the troops bivouacked undisturbed that night some distance to the north. Proceeding some 15 miles farther on the following day, May 27, the unit continued the march on May 28, covering 10 miles to Syferfontein, where the sound of guns ahead gave notice that General French's cavalry and artillery were heavily engaged.
Warned by the guns, it was no shock to the men of the Royal Canadian Regiment to find, on reaching Klipriversberg next morning, that they had caught up to General French's force, which for 24 hours had been striving vainly to capture a strong Boer position at Doorn Kop. This hill, incidentally, was a noted landmark, being the site where the Boers had effected the capture of Jameson and his raiding force of Bechuanaland police and settlers on January 2, 1896.
Describing the scene at Doorn Kop as the Battalion approached on May 29, Sergeant Hart-McHarg wrote as follows: "About one o'clock, as we overtopped a ridge, we came in view of a level piece of ground--on the opposite side of which rose a small kopje, surmounted by French's horse batteries, flinging shells at a bigger kopje two miles farther to the north; but it was easily seen from the return fire that the enemv's guns were much the heavier.... There are certain occasions when no words are necessary to inform the infantrvman that it is 'up to him' to do some fighting. The present was one of these. . . French had found an enemy too strong for him to dislodge; Hamilton with his infantry, his field artillery, and his 5-inch guns, must undertake the job, while the cavalry leader (French) took his squadrons and 12-pounders to the west and north to help the main attack by executing a flank movement on the Boer right."
Halting only long enough for Genera] French's flanking movement to get under way, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders were ordered to attack the left flank of the enemy's ridge position, while the 21st Brigade attacked on the right. Advancing at 2.30 p.m., with Lieut.-Col. Buchan in command of the 1st and 2nd lines, and Major Pelletier in command of the 3rd and 4th lines, the Royal Canadian Regiment pushed past an extensive area of fiercely burning grass and, being seen by the enemy, was immediately fired upon by 5-inch guns. The shells passed over the heads of the attacking waves, but struck with demoralizing effect in the unit's transport lines.
Having advanced to within 2,000 yards of the Boer position, the Regiment entered a blackened area of half burnt-out grass, a background against which the khaki uniforms stood out in sharp relief. Opening rifle fire on the target thus afforded, the Boers severely wounded one man in the third line of attack, but failed to check the movement, which, despite the fact that many of the men suffered painful burns, rolled confidently forward. Reaching the foot of the ridge occupiedby the Boers, the Regiment rushed a Kaffir hut surrounded by a stone wall. Three men were wounded in this action, but the remainder found cover, from which they opened heavy fire. Though the cover was adequate, the enemy began to work around the right flank, which, before long, was in serious danger. To meet this threat, Lieut.-Col. Otter ordered Lieut. A. E. Hodgins to open fire with a Maxim gun, an operation that was carried out so effectively that in half an hour all danger on the flank had disappeared.
Meanwhile, on the left, the Gordon Highlanders had seized an opportunity to charge the main buttress of the Boer position. Three times their lines swept forward and twice they were driven back, but on the third attempt they carried their objective and drove the Boers before them. Simultaneously, the Royal Canadian Regiment advanced on the right, completing the clearing of the ridge at approximately 5 p.m. Following this operation, the Battalion was concentrated atop the ridge and there spent the night.
In reporting on the day's work, Lieut.-Col. Otter wrote: "I cannot speak too highly of the conduct of all ranks of the Battalion at this engagement. Very little time was occupied, it taking less than three hours from beginning to end, owing to the spirited and determined way in which the attack was carried out." He mentioned also the fact that the Battalion had sustained a total casualty list of 7 men wounded; and referred to the important result of the action, which enabled Lord Roberts, with the main army, to effect the peaceful occupation of Johannesburg on the following day.
After a night of severe discomfort atop the captured hill, the Royal Canadian Regiment paraded at 4.30 a.m. on May 30 and, breakfastless, stood by awaiting orders. When these arrived at 10.30 o'clock, the unit marched 5 miles to Florida, a mining suburb to the west of Johannesburg and there, at noon, went into bivouacs. About an hour later, the Gordon Highlanders, who had remained behind to bury their dead, swung into the camp with their pipers in the lead. "There is not much cheering on active service," a Canadian soldier wrote, "but we had been eye-witnesses of the Gordons’ gallant conduct on the previous day and, as they wheeled into their bivouacs on our right, we cheered till we were hoarse. It was the heartiest and most spontaneous thing I witnessed during the whole campaign."
As the l9th Infantry Brigade was dissolved on arrival in Pretoria on June ~, the Royal Canadian Regiment was unbrigaded for two days, but on June 7 the Brigade was reformed, with the Suffolks replacing the Shropshires, and was ordered on June 8 to take over duties on the line of communication between Kroonstad and Pretoria. Attached to the Brigade for this work were the 74th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, and a half company of the Royal Engineers.
Referring in Brigade Orders to what the formation had accomplished previous to this reorganization, MajorGeneral Smith-Dorrien wrote as follows: "The 19th Brigade has achieved a record of which any infantry might be proud. Since the date it was formed [February 12, l900], it has marched 620 miles, often on half rations and seldom on full. It has taken part in the capture of 10 towns, fought 10 general engagements and on 27 other days. In one period of 30 days it fought on 21 of them and marched 327 miles."
It was at this time that "A" Coy., Royal Canadian Regiment, lost a gallant officer, when Lieut. M. G. Blanchard, who had been invalided to Bloemfontein from Kroonstad, was fatally wounded by shrapnel while on his way north to rejoin the Battalion. He had reached Roodewal on his journey, when an attack on that station was launched by a strong Boer commando, under General Christian De Wet. Outnumbered and helpless under the fire of the Boer artillery, the small Roodewal garrison fought bravely for some six hours, but was at last forced to surrender. Two officers of the Roval Canadian Regiment took part in this engagement, Lieut. Blanchard, who lay dying of shrapnel wounds when the action ended, and Capt. A. H. Macdonell, who was captured and, for six weeks, was held by the Boers as a prisoner.
Meanwhile, the 19th Brigade had entered upon its period of duty on the line of communication. After various marches and over-night bivouackings, the Royal Canadian Regiment on June 13 reached Springs, the terminus of a branch-line railway 18 miles from Johannesburg and a mining centre of some importance. Here, in billets, the unit remained until August 2. Guards, outposts, patrols, and trench digging occupied the time. There were several false alarms of attack, one genuine attack was easily repulsed, and the unit reconnoitred on one occasion for some 10 miles to the east.
Throughout this period Lieut.-Col. Otter, as Camp Commandant, was charged with responsibility for the line from Springs to Elandsfontein. He was assisted by his Adjutant, Capt. J. H. C. Ogilvy, whom he appointed Staff and Intelligence Officer; Lieut. F. D. Lafferty, who was named Railway Staff Officer; Capt. W. A. Weeks, who became Assistant District Commissioner; and Lieut. C. F. Winter, of "F" Coy., who was appointed Assistant Adjutant, in charge of all Regimental duties. Though no outstanding incidents occurred, the work of these officers was arduous and their success in carrying out duties with which they were in many instances unfamiliar is deserving of special mention.
The "rouse" startled the 19th Brigade at four o'clock on Tuesday, the 24th, and after satisfying the inner man in the dark, a start was made at 6.30. The wily Boer had withdrawn his guns while our men slept. The Gordons led the march, then came the Royal Canadians, both in extended order, followed by the Shropshires. Our brigade had been reinforced by two batteries, the 2nd Field Battery, and our old friends of "P" Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, with whom we had lain side by side for weeks at Belmont.
Under Col. Otter the Canadian regiment marched in line of half battalions, " D," "B," "F," and "H" companies on the right, with "C," "A," "G," and "E " companies on the left.
A crackle of rifle fire on the left of the line opened the day's work. The Gordons had rather more to do than our battalion. A small kopje, which confronts one just before the pumping station, was quickly carried, and a couple of purting shots served to clear the Dutch obstructionists from the water works. No stop to speak of was made here, since it was necessary to forge ahead and drive the enemy from the small chain of kopjes farther west of the Modder.
Once the water works were under British protection, it remained to drive the Boers from the kopjes beyond the river.
In the advance the Canadians were disposed as follows:-- "D" Company, under Capt. Rogers, and "B" Company, with Capt. Burstall in charge, were on the extreme right; "C" Company, with Captain Barker in command, and "A" Company, headed by Lieut. Blanchard, were, like the rest, well extended, and occupied the right centre. Farther left were, of course, the other companies, ' E," in command of Capt. Fraser; "F," in charge of Lieut. Leduc; "G," in Lieut. Jones' care; and " H," under Capt. Stairs. Kopjes, linked together by smaller hills, forming the objective points, as they had on so many previous occasions, were carried without loss.
The whole week had been one of great activity for the brigade, but Wednesday, the 25th, proved to be a day of unusual interest, attended by the killing of one of the R.C.R., the wounding of Col. Otter and two other men. By four o'clock on the afternoon previous our column had succeeded in taking possession of Mimosa kop, where a halt was made, and where the Canadians lay for the night.
There was a rather lethargic beginning to the 25th, and what proved to be a serious part of the week looked lazy at first.
A convoy was announced going back to Bloemfontein, and with it came the chance for the soldiers to send back letters. Consequently, the early part of the morning was, in many instances, spent in hurrying off messages to those at home. Orders came that the regiment was to move at 9.30, forming the advance guard. It was two hours before the first shot was fired, but soon after the big guns of both Britons and Boers were booming. The firing lagged and quickened during all the morning, and at two o'clock in the afternoon a general advance was ordered.
The Canadians, with the guns and mounted infantry, were sent to seize a row of kopjes and to occupy a big one among them. If opposed, they were to lie down, but if not seriously hindered, they were to rush the position.
At once the mounted infantry started to move around the ends of the long elevation, and the Royal Canadians went at the centre of the position, while the Gordons paid attention to a kopje on the left.
By three o'clock there was a heavy fire from the enemy's Mauser weapons, and though the Canadians had made progress they were lying flat on the ground, to give as little chance to the Boer marksmen as possible.
Major Pelletier was in charge of the firing line.
The order came for the companies in front to retire. A retirement in a quiet way to a near by donga was meant, but the feeling of insecurity spurred the men to retreat at the double.
Something had to be done at once to steady the wavering ranks; something had to be accomplished to get the Canadian pluck working, which was in every man there. Col. Otter met the retreating soldiers, and, taking the right of the line, steadied them in true soldierly fashion, while, to the credit of Lieut.-Adjutant Ogilvy be it said, the left of the line was calmed to its normal condition. Lieut.-Adjutant Ogilvy had before been mentioned in despatches, and his action on this occasion was highly commendable.
With the temporary commotion settled, Capt. Burstall volunteered to take his ("B") company through a donga, and by a hidden approach capture the kopje which was farthest to the right. This attack was begun with "D" Company in support, well up. There was a snapping of bullets, but on the two companies of Canadians went through the donga, one section of men at a time rushing out of the hiding place with fixed bayonets, and up the side of the kopje, a distance of some five hundred yards. The manoeuvre was successful, and as soon as all the Londoners had reached the summit of the steep rise they were reinforced by the soldiers of "D" Company, the men from Ottawa and Kingston.
Meanwhile the fray was in progress with the rest of the regiment and Col. Otter, while passing a stone-posted fence (of which the Boers must have had the range perfectly) was shot in the right side of the neck and chin. He was standing up at the time, and the bullet, after slightly touching the chin, grazed the neck and knocked part of the rank badge on his shoulder. His wound was not so serious that he could not walk back to the field hospital.
The other casualties were: Pte Defoe, "H" Company, formerly Royal Canadian Artillery, killed in the firing line; Culver, of "F" Company, wounded; and Lance-Corporal Burns, "D" Company, also wounded.
The attack of the rest of the brigade on the left had been successful, and when the other regiments got to the top of the position they could easily see the Boers in full retreat in the distance.
This was the battle of Yster Nek, and from there was beheld a fair sight of Thaba 'Nchu.
Thaba 'Nchu means black mountain, and, though it had greatly changed color since the days of the Orange Free State aborigines, it still stands out in its hazy greatness, a tower to be seen for dozens of miles. We could easily see it from the main street of Bloemfontein, forty-two miles away.
On Thursday, April 26th, Col. Otter and the wounded men of his regiment started back to Bloemfontein. The Colonel was met at the water works by Sergt.-Major Reading and a cart, and vas conveyed back to the late Orange Free State capital, where he received the best of medical attention, as did also the men who were unfortunate enough to be hit.
The brass-throated bugle woke the men before early dawn, and at six o'clock on Monday morning on the last of April they were in their places as rear guard of the brigade. The start was made northward, and the march was kept up for seven miles, till from Taba mountain there came a fairly heavy Boer fire. As the shooting increased the position of the enemy could be more easily made out, and it was found that they had taken their places for miles along the rather circular stretch of hill, and extended over each of our ranks. At noon the Boers could be felt reinforcing their left. Half an hour later they opened with their Ma2~ims and " pompoms " on both flanks.
The Gordons had become engaged on the left of the line, but at the right the enemy seemed to be extending, as if to get around the British flank there.
At two o'clock in the afternoon "A," "B" and "F" companies were sent around to the right, and in rear of the column, in order to prevent the Dutch from successfully e2~ecuting their anticipated movement. These companies came under shell fire in two places, when the Boers were firing at the mounted infantry.
When it was seen that the Boers' scheme could not be gone on with, the Canadians were turned about and moved across the rear of their own regiment. Etere was the first and worst experience of heavy shell fire which the men of the R. C.R. had gone through. From our right at a pass called Hoet Nek, and some four miles to the rear, the Dutch gunners were sending their shells at a tremendous rate. A lot of them did not burst; if they had there would have been many fewer of Col. Otter's command come back again to Canada. Hairbreadth escapes were plentiful, and one whizzing shell actually passed between a man's legs, while other soldiers were stunned by missiles which just missed them.
As it was, the Canadians lost but one man, the promising young son of Col. Cotton, Pte K. Cotton, of "D " Company, who was hit and instantly killed by one of the screeching shots. The Boer artillerists never did better shooting in their lives, and only the refusal of the shells to burst preserved our men from a veritable slaughter. In a first experience of such a situation a man, or a regiment, is liable to become discomposed, but shell after shell screamed through the air and still the Canadian regiment marched steadily across that ground as if on parade. They did not lie down, but stalked on in review style. It was nothing short of wonderful !
Taba mountain as the brigade faced it ran in a rather semi-circular fashion, with the ends curving in towards the British flanks.
There was a small kopje on the left of our position, and between it and the mountain itself a gully, then came the first rise in the mountain, with a ridge to protect our men from the Boer fire from the very top of Taba. With the sharpshooters to the right, our regiment went on under the shell fire, and met rifle fire intermittently from the front, but they had no difficulty in occupying the small kopje at the foot of the mountain, and here they remained all night, with the enemy sniping through the sleeping hours whenever the least opportunity was afforded. The men had no blankets, and only two and a half biscuits for two days! In such a position, with the snipers at work from the mountain side, it was necessary to keep very quiet. So the men lay, hungry and cold, noiseless and without the sign of a fire.
Orders for the morning were that the whole line was to advance at six o'clock, and consequently dawn saw them on the move. The regiments started down and into the stone-strewn gully and then began the ascent of the hill towards the ridge on its side, which was a sort of protection for our troops. There was no chance to advance in the regular way without being shot down by the Dutch in position high above. It was advance, but not standing up, so the men grovelled along on their bellies, with the wicked mausers snapping in front.
The cracking, whistling and buzzing from the enemy's bullets kept up in front and later developed upon both flanks, sweeping across the lines of the regiments of our brigade. The Royal Canadians were on the left of the line, with the Gordons next, and the Shropshires following in order. In this fusilade, which was aimed at our men, Lieut. Ross, of " B " Company, and Pte R. Irwin, of the same company, fell wounded, but neither dangerously hurt.
The shower of lead in the ranks of the brigade got heavier, and when it was coming a bit too fast for our friends the "Shrops" they retired " B " Company was on the extreme left holding that part of the line, and they also were compelled to retire fifty yards, firing when, and as best they could, over the ledge which had protected them when their heads were not shown. The Londoners were on ahead of the rest of the battalion, and needed reinforcements badly, but for some reason or other the supports which they sent for were delayed for hours.
To the left of " B " Company (all the rest were down below and back) there was a considerable mound, which, if the Boers once took possession of, would be a death blow to our men beneath it The Captain of " B " Company called for a volunteer to go and "scout" the position, and Pte Clare Rorison, of Windsor, went forward to make the necessary investigation. He found none of the enemy in that exact spot, but he was soon made aware of the fact that the Boers were in a painfully close quarter, for, as he surveyed the eminence, he got a mauser bullet through the leg, which, though not serious, was enough to incapacitate him. To this same rise, Sergt. Sippi, " B " Company, of London, was sent with six men. Col.-Sergt. Wm. Holmes, of " A " Company (then acting color-sergeant), was also along, aDd this small party manned the vantage point, and, with the rest of the company, " potted " away at the Boers, when they could be seen, till half-past twelve noon. Then they decided to advance, which they did successfully, taking the crest of the mountain, when the Boer fire had become somewhat lighter. The Gordons came on with a rush on the right, side by side with the Shropshire Light Infantry, while the Boers, satisfied apparently with having held the mountain so long, got down the steep ledge on the side farthest from the ledge, and rode off, but not till the small party of " B " Company men had knocked three of the Dutch farmers out of their saddles as they retreated.
There was little, if any, firing from one o'clock in the afternoon till five o'clock, when the long looked-for supports arrived, and " C" Company joined their comrades of the London district. With the " trekking " of the Boers the position was carried, and the Canadians, satisfied with the previous night on the hill below, without food, fire, or blankets, marched off to the plain beneath them and got the rations which were waiting for them, having had, as stated, but two and a half biscuits in all the two days.
The others wounded on May Day were Pte J. Lutz of "G" Company, Pte Letson of the same company, and Bugler Foster of "D" Company, none of them dangerously hurt.
The Boers were not without their losses, and chief among the captured and wounded were Commandant Lubbe, Commandant Banks, and Commandant Martinoff.
Lubbe, or his farm, both formerly mentioned, we had some dealings with before, since it was at his place we all but caught the Orange Free State officer when Col. Pilcher made a sortie from Belmont in February.
A whole German legion was fighting with the Boers that day, and for a time the British could not make out who the soldiers were advancing in e2ctended order and in British style. For some time, and until it was known who they were, our men refused to fire on them. It was meeting them that the gallant Capt. Towse of the Gordons was shot through the eyes, losing the sight of both, his wife later having to lead him into the presence of the Queen from whose hands he received the Victoria Cross.
The 2nd of May was a rest for our men, and in the lap of the mountain they waited all day and late into the night for the convoy which brought along the staff of life in the form of hard tack, meat and coffee. On account of indisposition, Capt. Barker, of "C" Company, and Lieut. Willis, of "H" Company, were compelled to return to Bloemfontein by the convoy which brought the supplies.
On Wednesday morning at seven o'clock the march was resumed north through the best part of Africa we had yet seen. Some parts of it were really beautiful. A herd of springboks scampered past, and brought to some of our battalion recollections of game-stalking at home.
The march was destined to be a short one, and by eleven o'clock in the morning we had passed the Boem platz (Tree farm) residence, converted for the time into the headquarters of our great General, Ian Hamilton, and we camped near a small grove and near a mighty rise in the ground, which hid us from the Zand River, some three miles away.
In the afternoon our guns, beyond the rising ground and out of sight, began shelling the Boers' position in and around the river bed. The Boers' guns, in good positions, replied at frequent intervals, and by the middle of the afternoon there were dozens of officers and men on the hills behind our guns, perched with their glasses all over the stones, which afforded them splendid seats from which to view the artillery matinee.
We had heard that the Boers were going to make a very determined stand at the Zand River, so that the advance, when ordered, was looked upon as no small undertaking. Our men were under a new divisional commander, for the division had been remodeled, and the former brigadier, Smith-Dorrien, was in charge of the 19th and 21st Brigades, the Highland Brigade had been taken out of the division, and the Colonel of the Shropshires became Brigadier. General Colville, who had been commander of the division, was made Governor of Winburg, which necessitated his remaining behind. All officers looked eagerly forward to Smith-Dorrien's first engagement as a divisional leader.
Late on Wednesday evening the Derbys were sent down to hold the drift by which the British had to pass the Zand River, and as they went out our big fifty pound guns were sent out to be ready and in position for the attack when daylight broke. "C" and "G" companies of our regiment were sent out to support the guns, and remained with them all night, returning to camp early in the morning, when " A" and " EI " companies were sent as escorts to the guns.
At 6.10 in the morning the first discharge of the fifty pounders shook the earth, and the Zand River engagement had begun. Soon the field batteries opened fire also, and the blue-white smoke of the shrapnel, and the dull, dusty yellow of the lyddite, broke like huge crashing puffballs all along the face of the Boers' occupied hills. The best of cover was taken by the Boers that day, but wherever their fire was opened, whether from rifles or guns, our artillery replied in a way that was decisive. At one time I saw the smoke of seven shells that burst simultaneously within a radius of fifty yards.
The Canadians in this battle, other than the two companies with the guns, were given a position on the extreme right, a hill sloping to the river, They went to the Boers' crossing at that point. They were disposed in a succession of five lines. Half of "B" Company, in charge of Capt. Burstall, supported by the other half of the company, under Lieut. Carpenter, formed our first and second lines, while "D," "E," and "F " companies were in rear. The firing line advanced down the slope of the bank to within five hundred yards of the river bed, and succeeded in dislodging about thirty mounted Boers. The Canadians were in a splendid place for the Boer snipers along the river, who, from their cover, were paying attention to our men. At a quarter past nine o'clock "D" Company reinforced "B" Company. The Boer snipers along the river shifted their position for some reason, to the great relief of the Canadians. As it was, Private Floyd, of "B" Company, was killed, and Privates Leonard and A. McLean, of the same company, and Private Armstrong, of "A" Company, were wounded.
At 9.30 Lieut.-Adjt. Ogilvy went to bring "C" and " G " companies from camp, while our regiment on the hill shifted more to the left.
Our men just over the crest of the hill and on the top of the slope to the river were returning the Boer fire, which was as sharp as the most heroic could wish for.
The bullets coming my way were cracking a little too lively for pleasure. About one hundred yards behind the Canadians' firing line I sat down, at ten o'clock, to rest, and here it was that I was hit in the right thigh by a Mauser bullet. Then I was taken back to camp.
The whole fighting from our regiment was over at eleven o'clock, and by noon the Boers' stronghold had passed from their hands into ours. At once our regiments began to move across the rough drift, where the transports were busy crossing all that night, and the steady stream of ox-waggons and mule carts kept up till two o'clock the next afternoon.
On Friday morning "C" and "F" companies were left behind to guard the drift till the transports had all crossed, and they consequently did not start from Zand River till the last oxen had sullenly slushed through the stream.
Two marches and we were within sight of Kroonstadt, where the regiment lay camped, but four miles from the town.
Two days after that the l9th Brigade stood on the banks of the Vaal River, the shallow stream which forms the northern boundary of the Free State. The men of the brigade waded into the oft-talked of river, and with water scarcely reaching their thighs, they soon stood on Transvaal soil; and the Canadians leading the brigade that morning were the first infantry regiment to step on Oom Paul's territory. Level grassy plains gave the army a suitable field for marching, but before they had covered the eighteen miles on which they were sent that day, the land again broke into interminable kopjes, necessitating a shorter march than usual on the 28th.
Early in the kopjes on the 29th, the Boers were astir, and by seven o'clock the hilly steeps, south of the main Rand ridge, eight or nine miles west of Johannesburg, were strongly held by the enemy.
A conference between General French and General Hamilton decided that the former should go against the Boer right on the west and the latter should break through on the south. The men under Hamilton were on their last days' rations, and they therefore had to win at once, without further strategical moves, or starve.
On the stroke of three, the infantry move began, the 21st Brigade on the left, under Major General Bruce-Hamilton, and the right looked after by the l9th Brigade, in charge of Col. Opens. The division was commanded by General Smith-Dorrien.
The Gordons led the brigade, and tramping over the burned and burning veldt they stuck grandly to their frightful task, but at 800 yards they were subjected to a terrific fire, which brought down nine of their officers and 88 men. When it is remembered that the British infantry loss in all was 150 killed and wounded, it can easily be seen in what a perilous position the Gordon Highlanders were. Still, forward they stalked, and before their glistening bayonets the trembling Boers fled in haste, while the guns behind the Canadians--the 81st and 74th Batteries--accelerated their flight. Viljoen and Delarey then made north with their bands of burghers in the direction of Pretoria, leaving surrendered to the British--but dearly won-- all the Witwatersrand district. The Canadians, not having been in the lead, escaped mercifully.
On the kopje on which the Canadians camped that night in the dark the Boers had a big gun trained, ready to shell them in the morning, but being aware of this, Col. Otter's men were roused before daylight and had their transport on the move before the Dutchmen had a chance of sending in any of their shells. The move that morning brought the brigade and our battalion to within two miles of the pretty village of Florida, on the Potchefstroom railway, eight miles west of Johannesburg.
Then the rations were gone in earnest, and in lieu of hardtack and meat the men were served with cornmeal and flour, to make whatever they could out of them. They had had no breakfast that morning because there was no water around the kopjes which they were holding. The arrival of the brigade near Florida was the occasion of a very large funeral in that spot of the men and officers who had succumbed to their wounds of the day before.
Lord Roberts sent word that he greatly regretted the shortness of rations, but that he would forward supplies as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the cornmeal and flour diet was all the men had. A dearth of hardtack and beef before this had been a hardship, but if these two army supplies could have been secured near Florida they would have been more relished than was the Christmas dinner at Belmont.
The Canadians were rejoiced to be once more on their way to Pretoria. Osfontein with its rotting carrion, poor water supply, and heavy rains had not given them much real rest. They had stood it well however, and as they sat about the puddles in their tents " quacked like ducks and cracked jokes about regattas."
The forward movement began again on March 6 with a tramp of only six miles to Koodcesrandt Drift. Here the battalion bivouacked for the day and grew expectant of the morrow. Another big battle was promised them. The enemy were in force in their front and were confident of being able to check Lord Roberts in his march to the Orange Free State Capitol. General Delarey and General ChristiaN De Wet, who has since proved himself an unrivalled leader in guerilla warfare, were in command of the Boer troops. How large or how small the force was, was not known; but it was known that they occupied a very strong position at Poplar Grove, and that it would be no easy task to force them from the kopjes or turn their flank.
The soldiers had a very exaggerated idea of the strength of the enemy. They no doubt expected that a fierce resistance would be made to their entry into Bloemfontein and reports spread through British army that the kopjes in front were crowded with Long-Toms, Krupp guns, and Creusots; and that on the morrow they would very probably have to face, not the fire of the Mausers, to which they had become accustomed and which they could protect themselves from to some extent, but a fierce shell-fire such as the British had thrown into the Boer laager at Paardeberg, and they would be without the impregnable trenches that saved their enemies in that bombardment. However any kind of fighting would be better than the monotony of heat and cold, hardtack and dirty water.
On the morrow the "rouse" sounded at three o'clock and by four they were ready to play their part in the battle Lord Roberts had planned. They were to do important work, but not as conspicuous or dangerous as against Cronje. They advanced from Koodoosrand Drift for about three miles as the rear regiment of the 19th Brigade. They were now within range of the threatening hills. At any moment a shell might come screeching through the intervening miles and drop into their midst. The command was given to extend, and the w hole regiment continued its advance towards Leeuw Kop at intervals of from eight to ten paces. The Canadians were still supports, and, while the Shropshires were making a reconnaissance, rested for several hours.
So far a silent battle had been going on. The Boers were waiting, and the British cavalry, artillery, and infantry were manoeuvering along their thinly extended line, some ten miles in extent.
At eleven o'clock the music of war began. A Boer gun spoke from Leeuw Kop. It was not directed at the infantry regiments but at the naval twelvepounder guns. Her "Majesty’s Jollies" became interested, and while the infantry brigades waited and manoeuvered a very picturesque artillery duel took place between the heavy guns. The Boer guns were well manned, and their shells fell with deadly accuracy about the sailors; but their ammunition was evidently defective for the shells did not burst. Had they done so the splendid marksmanship with which they were directed would certainly have silenced the British guns early in the action. The British fire, on the other hand, after the range was found was most effective. Clouds of dust and smoke and flying fragments of rocks told that the shells were bursting right in the Boer position. The fire from Leeuw Kop grew less dangerous and at last for a time their Long-Toms failed to speak. But only for a time. Once more the boom of the cannon was heard and the 4.7 men were almost instantly under an accurate fire. Half a dozen shells in rapid succession searched their ranks and for hours one of their guns spoke no more. It was seen that the naval guns were in serious danger and they were ordered to retire.
Meanwhile the cavalry and the infantry were endeavoring to turn the flank of the enemy, who were neither so numerous nor so well entrenched as was at first supposed. De Wet had before him the fate of Cronje. He saw the long line of the British brigades slowly but surely surrounding his position, and not wishing to spend the rest of the summer on St. Helena, commanded the retreat of his entire force; and his men left the field of battle vith the same haste that marked Cronje's flight from Magersfontein.
His retreat however was conducted with masterly ski11. Rifle-fire had played no part in this day's struggle and the Boer guns kept the British at a distance of 4000 yards in their rear. So ended this day of fighting, and another important step was taken towards ending the war. The enemy's forces were flying before Roberts' troops and even Presidents Kruger and Steyn, who had been confident of ultimate success with the aid of the God of Battles and the intervenlion of some foreign power, became dismayed
The day of the battle of Poplar Grove had been as trying on the Canadians as any day since they left Graspan. The heat was oppressive, and they had to march without water or food till late in the afternoon. True they did pass some swampy places during the day, muddy and slimy and trodden with the hoofs of horses and oxen; here they drank, drank from pools in which the carcases of dead animals were floating. They had started out as the rear of the brigade, but when the halt was called in the late afternoon the " long-legged Canadians " were leading. That night they bivouacked at Slaagskraal at the foot of the kopjes that had thundred during the day with the enemy's guns.
Next day they were too tired to advance, and rested where they were to talk over their successes to anticipate the speedy fall of Bloemfontein, and the rapid close of the war
Late that afternoon the whole hot and tired brigade began to quicken their step. The music of battle was before them; a stubborn fight was under way between Abraham's Kraal and Dreifontein. The Boers were being pressed back and back; but they were not giving way without a struggle. When the Canadians, leading the 19th Brigade, were within seven or eight hundred yards of the fighting regiments of the 19th Brigade an impetuous bayonet charge was made at the Boers' most important position and they broke and fled; and the last fight on the road to Bloemfontein had been fought. This had been an expensive battle to both armies. The British had 300 casualties, and as the Boers left 210 dead on the field they must have suffered much more severely. Four of their guns, too, were captured besides a number of prisoners.
The 19th Brigade had now advanced about fifty miles since leaving Osfontein, and they had not done this without great suffering. Men staggered along footsore and exhausted, hardly able to stalled, yet by mere force of will keeping up with their comrades. Frequently, however, they would fall unconscious along the line of march to be picked up by the ambulance corps in the rear. For the most part, however, the Canadian soldiers struggled manfully on after their regiment and managed to join it at the nightly bivouac. They had no difficulty in following the trail of the army; as on the road to Paardeberg, dead horses lined the route, and living ones too.
It was indeed a sad sight, this army of starved men and beasts toiling through a deserted country.
While the Canadian Mounted Rifles were enjoying the sweet odours of Mr. Fischer's garden, and waiting for the general advance in which they w ere to join, the Royal Canadians were in the middle of marches and engagements as severe as they had experienced in their rapid dash on Bloemfontein.
After the Boers had been driven from the Waterworks the "Fighting Nineteenth" followed them up, driving them before them. The Canadians seized a kopje about two or three miles from Sannahs Post and bivouacked for the night. All the surrounding kopjes had been seized by the British, and there was now no further danger of the Boers recovering possession of the important position they had held for the past three weeks. The morrow, the 25th of April, was to be one of the most important days in the history of the Canadian Regiment.
The Boers were discovered in the early morning in an easily defended position on a line of kopjes several miles in front. At half-past nine the 9th Division started forward to attempt to force them from their stronghold, and shortly before noon the first shot of what was to be an all day battle was fired. The Canadians halted for several hours while the mounted infantry skirted round the enemy's flanks and the artillery shelled the kopjes to beat down their rifle fire. At 3 o'clock the Canadians were ordered to advance on the kopjes, which they were to rush if they could do it without too great loss, but if they met a very determined resistance were to seek cover and wait till the mounted infantry and artillery had forced the enemy to evacuate their strongest positions.
The fight was one of the best planned in the campaign. While the frontal attack was being conducted by the Canadians, the mounted infantry were to surround the enemy on the right and left and the other infantry regiments were to execute a turning movement on the left threatening the Boers with the fate of Cronje at Paardeberg. At the same time the batteries posted in the rear of the advancing regiment were to keep up a steady shell fire over the heads of the Canadians.
Colonel Otter formed his men into four double companies. (~ Company on the right, H on the left in the firing-line, with E and F in support; C, D, B, and A were arranged in the same manner in the rear. It looked as though the battalion was about to experience another Paardeberg. Every precaution was therefore taken for safety. When the advance was begun the men were extended at intervals of fifteen paces, and the long line of earthbrown figures dotted the veldt for nearly a mile. Major Pelletier, who had been wounded at Cronje's Laager, but who now had rejoined the regiment, was in charge of the firing line; with him was the commanding officer directing the movements of the entire battalion. Colonel Buchan commanded the rear lines. In thi9 order the regiment advanced for about a mile, the earth occasionally being puffed about them by the singing bullets. At length a donga was reached affording excellent shelter, and as the bullets were dropping somewhat faster than at first the men would gladly have halted for a time, but they were ordered to continue the advance. When about fifty yards from this valley they came upon a wire fence; the wires were supported on stone posts that shone in the sun, making excellent targets.
The Boers had evidently had this position marked, and were reserving their fire, for scarcely had the advancing line reached the wire-entanglement when a deadly and continuous fusilade at a distance of about 700 yards was rained along the thinly extended line. To advance would have been as great folly as the Sunday charge at Paardeberg; to stay where they were on the unsheltered veldt would have been to court death. The order to retire was given. It was intended that the men should steal back quietly to cover, but the face once turned from the rifle-fire the heart weakened and the whole line began to rush in disorder to the rear. At such a time the metal of the officers was displayed. The captains of the companies boldly showed themselves and steadied their men as best they could, while Colonel Otter, as on former occasions, exposed himself to the rifle-fire while checking the disorder in the firing-line on the right; in this work he was ably seconded by his adjutant Lieutenant Ogilvy, who courageously came forward to assist in the dangerous work on the left.
Colonel Otter remained standing till the last man had got safely to cover. His commanding figure, evidently directing the movements of the soldiers, was observed by the Boers. They had his range to the yard, and after the usual custom when an officer was sighted poured a volley at him. He was just settling to cover when a storm of bullets whistled about him, one penetrating his neck within an inch of the jugular vein, and another cutting the badge on his shoulder. It was a close call. Despite the painful wound, however, he remained on the battlefield directing the battalions for the rest of the day, and at the end of the fight walked unsupported to the field-hospital.
For nearly an hour the men remained in their safe shelter listening to the guns sending shrapnel into the kopjes and hearing the steady rifle-fire of the remainder of the 19th on the left. The firing line kept replying to the Mauser bullets that sang over their position, but as they could not see the enemy their fire had little or no effect. However the fire of the Boers slackened and the Canadians hoped yet to seize before darkness fell the kopje they had been sent out to take.
Captain Burstall, who has very frequently in the despatches been mentioned for bravery and judgment, noticed that a sheltering donga led towards the coveted kopje and gallantly volunteered to lead B Company through this towards the hill. Permission was granted him to make the attempt and under cover of the valley B advanced stealthily, with D nominally in support allowing so closely behind as to be practically a part of the advancing line. On all the surrounding kopjes the fight was being vigorously waged by artillery and mounted infantry and infantry; continuous rattle and boom was going on, while this small force advanced to give the finishing touch to this day of fighting.
The Boers had begun to weaken; many of them were already trekking away for their lives, and when B Company emerged at about 500 yards coming at them on the double with bayonets fixed they fired a few wild parting shots and fled; and the victorious Canadians climbed to the summit of the hill, and the task they had been allotted to do was done, and done ell. The Canadians were once more the first regiment in at the finish of a hard day's fighting.
The Boers were scattered and in flight towards the high hills some miles distant where yet another battle must be fought. The day's work done, the regiment bivouacked for the night, a tired and weakened force scarcely half the number with which they marched from Graspan. Despite the trying fire to which they had been exposed the casualties were small, but one man killed and three wounded, including Colonel Otter. This battle, generally known as Israel's Poort, but likewise called Yster Nek and Black Mountain, cost the entire British force engaged only some twenty in killed and wounded, notwithstanding that the army had been almost continuously engaged for nearly six hours. This fight cleared the way for the advance to the little village of Thaba N'Chu, and on the following day the column was marched into this place unopposed. Colonel Otter's wound was severer than he at first thought, and he u as compelled to return the thirty-five miles to Bloemfonten where he was forced to remain for nearly a month.
The Boers who had been in force about Dewetsdorp and engaged in besieging General Brabant at Wepener, were known to be trekking north, and an effort was made to ambush them as they passed Thaba N'Chu, so when the Canadians arrived at the foot of the great black mountain that rose 2000 feet above the plain and the surrounding kopjes they were posted in a donga expecting the Boers to fall into the snare. But De Wet and his men were taking no chances, and making a wide detour escaped to the north without coming in contact with General Ian Hamilton's division.
The next day was one of much needed rest, for the Canadians, but in the cool of the night two companies with the Gordons went out to help rescue a party of Kitchener's Horse who were reported to be in a dangerous position. All night long they stumbled over the plain, and when they got back to Thaba N'Chu next day they found they had been on a wildgoose chase; the Kitchener's were long since out of danger. In the meantime the rest of the battalion became alarmed for the safety of their comrades and went out to assist them and the Kitcheners if necessary; but probably while the men who had been tramping around all night were sleeping in the heat of the morning the others passed them by; and they too had much tramping to no purpose until midnight.
Next morning the "rouse" awoke the men at four o'clock and they made ready for a day's marching and fighting. Eden Kopje was their destination, and as they marched towards it they were subject to an occasional shot but no man was struck. This mountain, 1500 feet high, they ascended at five in the afternoon only to vacate it at once. It was a dangerous position and another Spion Kop might of been the result of an attempt to hold it. It was dangerous, too, to march back to Thaba N'CIlu by the road over which they had come, and so they made a wide detour through the darkness, tramping through thorn bushes, stumbling over ant-hills and rocks. It was midnight before they were able to roll themselves up in their blankets.
The morrow was Sunday: war is usually no respecter of the Sabbath, and even the pious Boer had been forced to fight on this sacred day; but the 19th was too much spent to look for fighting, and so they rested. In their camp they could hear on their left a brisk artillery duel going on, while in the little village below them the church bells were calling the burghers to prayer. The sounds mingled strangely; and as the soldiers looked out towards those gloomy kopjes that still had to be stormed, there was not a man but wished that the cruel war were at an end, and they could be back listening to the sound of church bells in their native town. But there was nothing to be gained by wishing. Next day, while the great spectacular march was going on from Bloemfontein, they were to be subjected to the severest shell-fire they had experienced during the war.
On April 30 they marched out as rear guard of the brigade, and as such did not anticipate very severe fighting; but no part of the "Fighting Nineteenth" was ever very long out of the thick of battle. The Boers retreated from ridge to ridge as the division advanced, making a determined stand on their entrenched positions of Taba Mountain and at Hout Nek. The enemy were here found to have a widely extended line; it would be hard indeed to take these tall kopjes and turn the flanks of a force that had a front of over four miles. The Gordons were the first to attempt to force the stubborn enemy from Taba Mountain, but were repulsed after a dashing attempt. It was thought, too, that the enemy w ere making an effort to turn the British flank, and the Canadians were ordered to advance in support of the Gordons and to assist in preventing this turning movement.
Three companies moved forward with Captain Rogers, of Ottawa, directing the firing-line. Up to this time the Boer guns at Taba Mountain and Hout Nek had been giving their attention to the mounted infantry, but as they saw the Canadians coming into action they turned two heavy guns on them and swept their line. The soldiers had lost a good deal of respect for Boer riflemen, but they had now every reason to admire the foreign artillerists who were directing the Creusot and Krupp guns that were sending shell after shell with such accuracy into their line. Luck--we can call it by no other name--was with them again; indeed, when the work done by both the Canadian infantry and mounted rifles is considered, and the ridiculously small list of casualties, it would not be surprising if "The luck of the Canadians" would become proverbial in the army. Men were stunned, men were knocked down, in several cases they were actually tossed some feet into the air, but only one was killed. For the most part the shells did not explode; had they done so the regiment would undoubtedly have suffered heavily in killed and wounded. After a shell or two had fallen into the firing-line the men became as steady as if at drill on the barracks' square.
On this occasion the Boers were not using smokeless powder, and so the grey cloud on the hill several miles away told when the shell might be expected. Captain Rogers ordered his company to keep their eyes on him and double when he doubled. As soon as the smoke showed itself he rushed forward a few paces and the men lost no time in following his example. They advanced thus for about a quarter of a mile while the shells kept dropping, occasionally among them, but for the most part, owing no doubt to Captain Rogers' coolness, a few feet in their rear. On one occasion Harry Cotton, a son of Lieutenant-Colonel Cotton, lagged a little behind in the rush, and a well directed Boer shell found him. It was one of the few that burst, and his comrades were, for the time being, forced to leave him where he fell. Rifle-fire the soldiers were by this time accustomed to, but this shell-fire was a comparatively new thing; however no man wavered and although there was a good deal of ducking heads as they rushed forward none threw themselves on the ground. The huge projectiles screeched through space, great columns of dust were dashed on high as they buried themselves in the ground or bounded over the plain, or a thousand spiteful hisses filled the air as the fragments of the occasional shell that burst fell about the advancing line. It needed nerve to keep from showing a white feather, but the fine example of the officers kept the men steady.
Despite the shell-fire and finally the rifle-fire, the Canadians succeeded in gaining a position at the base of the mountain, where as darkness fell they threw up stone shelters to protect themselves from the fire of the Boers who sniped away during the night.
It had been a most unsatisfactory days' marching and enduring fire with very little offensive fighting. The artillery practice was altogether on the part of the Boers, as their heavy pieces completely outranged the British 15-pounders, and the naval long range guns were still toiling in the rear. Nightfall w as not unwelcome, and the Canadians tried to enjoy as best they could their thoroughly uncomfortable bivouac. They had no blankets and the night was piercingly cold; they had to maintain absolute silence for fear of attracting the enemy's fire, nor could they light fires for the same reason; and so they munched at the scant rations of hardtack they had with them and huddled together, shivering with cold waited for the morrow and more fighting.
When night had descended on hill and plain Captain Rogers and a party of Ottawa men went out in search of their comrade who had fallen ill in the advance. They found him where he fell, his body mangled by the cruel shell; and they buried him in a soldier's grave on the battlefield.
Early next morning the fight began once more. The crest of the hill had to be won, and the Canadians were there to win it. Hills can be stormed; that was shown 19 years ago when the Boers wriggled their way up Majuba Hill and shattered Sir George Colley's force. The Canadians could not do better than follow their tactics, and so they began the ascent, grovelling along the ground, taking advantage of every bit of cover that presented itself. They were cold and hungry and exhausted from want of sleep, but the fever of battle is a powerful stimulus, and the men as they slowly crept up the steep mountain forgot all about their physical sufferings. They advanced and fired, fired and advanced, outdoing the Boers in their skill in keeping themselves invisible. They were at length exposed to the enemy and a terrific fire swept across the line. Several men u ere wounded, and to continue the advance would mean a heavy list of casualties, and so they were compelled to retreat to a sheltering valley.
Captain Burstall from his shelter observed a bit of rising ground that commanded a full view of the Boer's position. Private Rorison bravely volunteered to pass through the rifle-fire and examine this spot. He went boldly forward, but 2S he reached it he w as wounded in the leg. A firing party had followed him up and they had an excellent point of vantage from which they could fire into the Boer lines; and the Canadians were absolutely safe in their cover.
In the meantime the naval guns had appeared on the scene, and the "Ocean Cavalry" began to drop shell after shell into the Boer trenches. Their rifle-fire slackened, the booming of their artillery was heard no more, and towards evening a general advance was ordered. The position was won with but little loss. In two days fighting, despite the heavy shell-fire and the thousands of Mauser bullets that had been showered among them, the Canadian regiment lost but one man killed and six wounded.
The British captured a few prisoners. among them some important commandants, but the main force was trekking rapidly north, hurrying to get beyond the Vet river before Roberts could reach that important point. They had made a stubborn stand, and although pressed back they had succeeded in carrying away their heavy guns.
The Boers were now in full retreat and the forward movement could go on with greater rapidity. The enemy on the east had been scattered and the plan of Lord Roberts became evident to all. A column under General Ian Hamilton was to be a part of the general advance on Pretoria, and was to proceed on the eastern flank of the army of fifty or sixty thousand men, through Winburg on to Kroonstad.
On the morrow they marched steadily forward to Isabellafontein and bivouacked at four in the afternoon. Here they were joined by three other infantry brigades. They were now a powerful army in themselves that I10 force of Boers left in arms would be able to resist. In all they must have numbered between fifteen and twenty thousand men with a host of infantry, a complete division of mounted men, and a thoroughly efficient artillery force. The Creusots and the Krupps of the enemy could no longer outrange them as they had attached to their artillery two powerful 5-inch siege guns.
The following day they once more came up with the enemy, and the 19th Brigade were placed in support and never came under fire or pulled a trigger. They had, however, the pleasure of witnessing a most interesting artillery battle which lasted during the entire morning; but the siege guns sending their fifty pound shells a distance of over six miles terrified the Boers who fled, and the advance began once more. Just as darkness was falling the Vet River was reached and here the army halted for the night. They expected to enter Winburg on the morrow, but they expected to have to fight their way in. The passes to the town were easily defended, and it was thought that the Boers who had retreated from Wepener, and who had been driven from Taba Mountain and Hout Nek, would concentrate their forces and make a hard fight. But Lord Roberts had already occupied Brandford; the vast army under him w as irresistibly sweeping northward with a forty mile front. Delay might mean capture and so the commandos passed through Winburg without offering any resistance to General Hamilton's progress.
On the afternoon of the 5th this town, an important Boer base of supplies was entered. The white flag was flying over the market place, and not a shot was fired. As a regard for the excellent work they had done since leaving Bloemfontein the 19th Brigade had the place of honor in the march into Winburg. As they entered the town General Botha with some 500 Germans and Hollanders on fresh horses galloped out at the opposite side.
The Canadians expected a sorely needed rest of a couple of days here, but they were not to have it; swiftness of movement was what was needed now to speedily finish the war. The Boers were running; they must be kept running and given no time to concentrate their forces till Pretoria was reached. On the day the column entered Winburg, word was received from General Roberts praising them for the good work they had done; a march of over 100 miles in thirteen days, battling with the enemy on nine occasions, the capture of two important towns --this was not bad work. The Field-Marshal recognized all they had done, but desired them to endure still further, that release from marching and fighting and privations and death might come all the sooner.
Forward the Canadians had to go, and only twenty-four hours after entering the pretty little town of Winburg they were once more a part of the great river of men that was overflowing the land in its onward rush. As a regiment they were now greatly weakened, some seventy men sick with enteric and dysentery and unable to march from sore feet had to be left behind at Winburg. The strength of the battalion w as now a bare five hundred. Fortunately the draft that had come on the Monterey and had toiled over the Orange Free State from Norval's Pont to Bloemfontein and from Bloemfontein in the wake of the Royal Canadians for the past thirteen days, joined them, and three officers and ninety-one men were thus added to their strength.
The unexpected now happened. They were halted nine miles from Winburg, and for two days they rested; then once more the order was, "On to Pretoria!"
There was poetic justice in having one of the climactic struggles of the war take place among the kopjes where Jameson's raiders came to grief; just as there was poetic justice in having the first great Boer reverse, the capture of Cronje, the turning point of the war, take place on Majuba Day.
While the mounted infantry under Hutton had been fighting so effectively at Klipriversberg the 21st and 19th Brigades came in for their share of work in this Doornkop region. The Boers were discovered in force with heavy artillery, checking the advance on Roodepoort and Florida. They had between two and four thousand men, and not fewer than six guns together with a number of "pom-poms." The British had suddenly come upon a difficult position, but there was nothing to do but fight, and that under the most trying circumstances.
Once more the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry was to take part in a general engagement, and once more it as to share the honors of the day with the brave and dashing Highlanders. The Boers were in a strong position to oppose this well-planned attack, and with the shrewdness that had marked their tactics from the commencement of the war they had made it doubly strong. The khaki uniform of the British soldiers had in previous fights served as natural protection on the brown veldt. At long range it was almost impossible to catch sight of the thinly extended line of earth-colored figures, and they as often fired at anthills and rocks as at men. But they had resolved that on this occasion if the British did succeed in driving them from their trenches they would pay dearly for their success. For several miles along their front they had set fire to the veldt, dry with the autumn frosts, and the British as they moved forward saw before them rolling slopes of fire and smoke, ridges along which ran spurts of fire, and broad stretches black with a deadly blackness. The khaki uniforms which had protected them in the past stood out on this black background an excellent target for the sharp-shooters making a last determined effort to keep the "rooineks" from entering the Gold City.
The 19th advanced in extended order, the Canadians in four lines. As the infantry moved forward the 5-inch guns and two batteries began to send well-directed shells over their heads at the Boer position. The British force was still several miles from the enemy's lines when shells began to scream through the smoky air and bury their noses in the blackened plain, fortunately bursting but seldom. Still the advance continued; that distant ridge guarding the way to Johannesburg had to be won before nightfall. A mile was crossed under this shell-fire, and still another mile of blackened veldt intervened when sharp and deadly the shrill Mauser bullets began to sing among the advancing soldiers. Through clouds of smoke, through belts of fire, across broad black stretches, the men hurried, reserving their fire. At length a Kaffir hut surrounded by a stone kraal was reached. This spot afforded excellent shelter and over two hundred of the Canadian Regiment took cover in this safe position, and for the rest of the afternoon poured a most effective fire into the enemy's ranks.
The Boers made an attempt to flank the right of the Brigade, but the Canadian Maxim gun was in a good position and foiled their attempt. So till darkness began to fall the Canadians poured volley after volley into the trenches where the enemy seemed thickest; so till darkness was approaching the shells from the big guns and the quick-fire guns screamed and roared across the grim battleground.
The Gordons, however, bore the brunt of the fight. Their position was the most difficult on the field; they had but little shelter and their men fell in great numbers. The men of Dargai, however, were worthy of their reputation, and when General Smith-Dorrien sent in word that the Boers must be cleared from the ridge by nightfall they fixed bayonets, and with wild, reckless dash moved forward on the enemy's main position and scattered them before their impetuous charge. But they paid dearly for their bravery; twenty gallant fellows in the regiment were killed and seventy wounded-- almost a sixth of their entire force in the fight.
In this final charge the Canadians played their part. Then the cheer loud and long told that the main position had been stormed by the Highlanders the Canadians w ere ordered to advance on the double and drive the Boers from the trenches immediately in front. At their approach the enemy fled, they dreaded the cold steel, and when the Canadians breasted the height through a belt of fire and smoke they found that the enemy were galloping away in confusion towards Johannesburg.
They thus brought to a close a hard day's fighting. Their loss had been small, only seven men wounded. It was once more the luck of the Canadians, and the extended order which had saved them; but for the thirty paces between the men and the one hundred and fifty between the lines the heavy shell-fire to which they were exposed and the steady rifle-fire which they had to face as they climbed the slope towards the ridge, would have found many a victim.
At 4.30 next morning they were under arms and started for Florida five miles away, where they got meat and groceries, but as the convoy had not yet caught up they ~-ere without flour or biscuits. Starving, cold, ragged, but happy. They had helped clear the way into the Gold City, whose mines and public buildings, despite the many threats of the Boers, were intact.
On the following day, May 31, the city was surrendered and Lord Roberts made his triumphal entry. The streets towards the suburbs were largely deserted and the stores and houses barricaded for the most part; but as the troops marched towards the public buildings the crowds gathered.
Soon from many flag-staffs, from the principal buildings floated the Union Jack, and, as Barnes tersely puts it, "Johannesburg was English."
For the present but few of the soldiers of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry or the Canadian Mounted Rifles, who had fought so hard and endured so much to reach Johannesburg, u-ere to enter it. But the few who did saw a strangely new city, a city that had risen from the plains in less than twenty years, a city of about one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants, a city with tall chimneys and staring factories, with piles of refuse from which the gold had been crushed, a city without churches, a city of saloons. A wicked, greedy, worldly city; and for this city they had crossed seven thousand miles of ocean, and climbed another thousand miles of veldt and kopje.
On Boxing Day, Otter found that he had been replaced in command at Belmont by a new arrival from West Africa, Lieutenant Colonel T.D. Pilcher of the Northumberland Fusiliers. A staff college graduate, Pilcher was actually only a major but his acting rank gave him seniority over a mere Canadian militia officer. Otter's obvious chagrin at being displaced is apparent in his report to his wife. The young man, he found, was rather like General Hutton in ideas and outlook: "I fancy when he heard that there was a chance of getting a bit of kudos he at once worked the oracle and got the station - besides I fancy the authorities would not trust a militia officer with any such command unless he were well known to them, and I dare say quite rightly."33 Otter was all the more annoyed, in fact, because he discovered that he had achieved his own displacement. A party of Cape Dutch rebels had been reported lurking near Douglas, some miles to the west. Having won official approval for his plan to launch an expedition against them, Otter found that Pilcher had appeared just in time to take charge. After a week devoted to rearranging the camp to his own specifications, the new commander, with most of the artillery and mounted infantry at Belmont and "C" Company of the Canadians, set out on December 30th. On New Year's Day, he encountered the Boers near Sunnyside and, in a sharp little action, drove them away. Prudently, Pilcher had made certain that a Reuters correspondent accompanied the little expedition and, at a time when British successes were rare, an overblown account of the victory was all the Pilcher needed to propel him to greater things. Within four days of his return to Belmont, he had been summoned to command a mounted infantry brigade and Otter was once again in charge.
Sunnyside had been the first occasion in which Canadians had come under fire, although no casualties were suffered. Unfortunately, in his report, the Reuters correspondent emphasised that the company was from Toronto, awakening all the sectional jealousies Otter had attempted to soothe. There were many other worries pressing in on him. Command of the station was an even heavier burden as a result of the Sunnyside affair. Now there were worries about prisoners, refugees, stolen cattle, false alarms.
The broader tactical picture was not, of course, shared with Otter and his men. On April 21st, when the battalion was sent eight miles east to Springfield, its task was merely to relieve a British battalion on garrison duty and the men travelled light. They were shrunken in numbers too; a mere 27 officers and 584 men, little more than half the number who had landed at Cape Town. More than a hundred and fifty were left behind as convalescents. After a day and a half at Springfield there were fresh orders and the Canadians again set out, this time toward Boesman's Kop and the Waterworks. On the night of the 23rd, they slept within a few miles of the earlier battlefield and next morning, they again advanced, climbing Momema mountain and bivouacking on the far side. Only then did they discover that they were part of the infantry support for a strong force of mounted infantry clearing the route for the British advance. General Colvile and the Highland Brigade had been left behind to guard the lines of communication. The change in high command was clearly for the better. Smith-Dorrien later commented that Hamilton "was a delightful leader to follow, always definite and clear in his instructions, always ready to listen and willing to adopt suggestions, and, what is more important, always ready to go for the enemy and extremely quick at seizing the tactical advantage."40 For his part, Hamilton was sufficiently impressed by Smith-Dorrien to give him command of both his brigades of infantry.
The Boers were now engaged in a series of rearguard actions, attempting to delay the British, to cause as heavy casualties as possible and to enable their own waggon trains to escape. They abandoned the Waterworks with no more than a show of resistance to take up a much stronger defensive position on some hills astride the main line of advance at Israel’s Poort. After three hours of marching on the morning of April 25th, the Canadians were ordered to halt while scouts and mounted infantry tried to locate the flanks and drive them in. By 2.00 p.m., Smith-Dorrien had concluded that the position could not be turned and some form of frontal attack would be necessary. Otter was ordered to advance across the open plain until Boer fire forced his men to take cover. Meanwhile, the rest of the 19th Brigade would attempt to capture the line of kopjes to the left and the mounted infantry would concentrate on finding a way around the Boer flank.
Otter promptly deployed his battalion in four extended lines, with a generous fifteen yard interval between men. Lawrence Buchan was left with the reserve companies while Otter himself, "knowing his excitable temperament," accompanied Major Oscar Pelletier in the first line of companies. At 3.00 p.m., the battalion began to advance.
The nervous excitement of the battalion's first advance at Paardeberg was now a memory. The men had felt the effect of fire and now they found it even more nerve-wracking to plod slowly forward in the knowledge that Boer marksmen were perhaps already lining up their rifle sights. There was a grim silence in the ranks. The men had gone almost a mile when the first line approached a long wire cattle fence. Only about six hundred yards remained. There was a crack of a bullet and, as Canadians sprawled to the ground, a regular fusillade. The characteristic stone fence posts were obviously aiming marks for the concealed Boers. A few yards on the near side of the fence, a shallow ditch offered safety. Otter glanced around to see a few men sliding back to reach its protection. A man got up and, half-crouching, darted back. Others rose. A vision of the scene at Ridgeway flashed before Otter's eyes. If this kept up, the company would dissolve in disaster. Where were their officers? He leaped to his feet, a string of sulphurous curses pouring from him, and strode toward the frightened men. Disconcerted by this more immediate threat, the men sank to the ground. After seeing the company officers take command of a more orderly withdrawal to the ditch, Otter strode with deliberate gravity back to the centre of the line.
"I had hardly sat down, half lying and looking to my left front when something hit me on the right side of the chin and I thought my jaw was broken. I began to bleed like fun but my faithful Ogilvy who was near ran over and bound me up with his red bandanna." The bleeding stopped and it did not occur to Otter to give up command. Nearby, a soldier was drilled through his head and died almost at once. Minutes passed and the first line began returning the fire. Far to the left came the sound of more firing and then cheering as the rest of the brigade completed its attack. In front, the firing was now only sporadic and ineffective. It was Otter's turn to move. Standing up, he tried to shout, stopped when the effort brought a red-hot pain in his neck, and simply waved his men forward. In a few seconds, all four lines were up and moving. By 5.00 p.m., both of the kopjes flanking the road were occupied and the Canadians were settling down for the night on the far side.
The little encounter had cost the battalion one man killed and three wounded, including Otter. "(A)bout 6 p.m. our good little French doctor Fiset came up and dressed me and found that the bullet had entered my chin and come out on the right side of my neck narrowly missing the jugular. To his astonishment, he discovered that a second bullet had come close enough to rip a rank badge from his right shoulder. Barring the loss of blood and the ruin of his jacket and breeches, he reported to Molly, he was none the worse and entirely prepared to continue the campaign. Instead, his subordinates "made a great fuss and insisted on my lying down on a stretcher with an awning over me to keep off the sun." Smith-Dorrien appeared, full of concern and compliments. Hamilton, he reported, had been apprehensive when the Canadians advanced a second time but their brigadier had replied: "I have tried Otter and his men several times and never found them wanting."Even some of Otter's subordinates now found it possible to appreciate the virtues of their aloof and unbending commander: "Colonel Otter was always very cool under fire," the newly promoted Sergeant McHarg acknowledged, "and inspired confidence in whatever part of the field he happened to be.
Under Buchan's command, the Canadians had continued the tiresome and dangerous business of clearing the Boers from their rearguard positions. On April 30th the battalion had joined in the battle of Hout Nek. Sent to reinforce the Gordon Highlanders in a stalled attack on Thaba Mountain, the Canadians had come under artillery fire for the first time in the campaign. With the battalion well spread out and moving rapidly, the casualties were slight - a few men nicked by fragments and young Henry Cotton, blown to pieces by a direct hit.
In Otter's absence the battalion had travelled a long way. By May 3rd, General Hamilton's troops had cleared a way for the entire army to advance. Rolling forward in three columns, with Hamilton on the right and Roberts commanding the centre, the British found their opponents demoralized and in full flight. Only at the Zand River, forty miles south of Steyn’s new capital at Kroonstad, was serious resistance encountered. The Canadians and a battalion of mounted rifles, Kitchener's Horse, were on the right flank of the army and they bore the brunt of a considerable volume of fire and what appeared, for a time, as a possible enveloping attack. The day cost the R.C.R. one man killed and three wounded, one mortally, but the line held. Elsewhere the overwhelming weight of numbers pushed through the Boer position and on May 12th, Roberts and the main column marched into Kroonstad. For a couple of days, Hamilton's column rested; then it was on the march, this time toward Lindley, where Steyn had reportedly established his government. Again there was token resistance and, when Lindley fell, the troops marched on to Heilbron, the next seat of government. From there, on the 22nd, there were new orders to march to the Vaal river.
The Boers faded away in front of the army but other commandos moved in behind the British rear. Major Fiset, the popular French Canadian medical officer, was left behind in the German Hospital at Heilbron to recover from fever. He woke up next day to find himself, albeit briefly, a Boer prisoner of war. It was a foretaste of the kind of war to come but, to the British and, indeed, to many Boers, campaigns were still fought for territorial acquisition and geographic symbolism. At dawn on the 26th, when Otter resumed command of the R.C.R., he was just in time to lead his battalion and the army across the Vaal into the territory of the South African Republic. It seemed a magnificent honour for the Canadian unit, now reduced, despite reinforcements, to a mere 25 officers and 418 men.
Henceforth the Transvaalers would have to fight on their own soil. At first their resistance seemed no more effective than that of the demoralized Free Staters. On the afternoon of May 28th, when the Canadians halted to receive the khaki serge uniforms Otter had brought from Bloemfontein, they had hopes of being in Johannesburg by the next evening. However, the Boers had determined to make a stand along the ridge at Doornkop, where Dr. Jameson and his men had been forced to surrender almost four and a half years before. The route of Hamilton's column toward the Johannesburg suburb of Florida lay directly across the Doornkop position. By dawn on the 29th the army was on the move but the cavalry and mounted infantry under French made no headway in the face of the unexpected Boer resistance. At 1.00 p.m., as the Canadians climbed over a ridge, they could see the battlefield laid out before them. "There are certain occasions when no words are necessary to inform the infantryman that it is 'up to him’ to do some fighting," McHarg noted, "The present was one of these."
The 19th Brigade was, in fact, face to face with the strongest point in the Boer position. While the 21st Brigade moved off to the left to make its assault, the three remaining battalions of the 19th each deployed on a two-company frontage, the Canadians on the right, the Cornwalls on the left and the Gordons in the centre. At 2.30 p.m., the infantry began to advance. Their route lay down a slope, across a dry watercourse and up the other side to enemy positions about 3,000 yards away. As the troops moved off the Boers set fire to the dry grass of the veldt and the wind carried the flames crackling toward the advancing troops. Halfway across they had to jump through the fire, emerging singed and shaken and clearly outlined in their faded khaki uniforms against the charred ground.
Otter's understanding of his orders was that the infantry would push to within a thousand yards of the Boer position, take cover and open a brisk fire. For the Canadians that meant halting at the foot of the ridge, finding good fire positions and blazing away. On the left, however, the Gordons continued to climb. Conspicuous on the black ground, they suffered brutal casualties - nine officers and eighty-eight men were left killed or wounded on the slope - but their impetus carried them to the top of the ridge, sweeping the Boers down the other side. With better protection from the overhanging hill, the Canadians also began to move up the slope and, by 5.00 p.m., the entire ridge was clear. Canadian casualties were eight wounded, four of them severely.54 Having counted their losses and posted their sentries, the troops settled down for the night, minus blankets, greatcoats or rations. "We all of us did what we had done often before - went to sleep hungry - this time with the full knowledge that there was nothing at all to eat in the morning."
Long before dawn on the 30th the troops were roused and ordered to stand to their arms. So far as their commanders knew, the Boers might still be waiting for them on the ridges that still barred the way to Johannesburg. They were not. Scouts soon reported that not only was the way clear but Lord Roberts' column, slipping past the Doornkop position, had already entered the city. By noon, hungry and worn out, the Canadians reached their allotted bivouac area at Florida. The Gordons, who had remained behind to bury their dead, marched in an hour or so later. "We knew they felt about as weary as we did, but when they came to our lines, they braced up and swung past to the skirl of the pipes with the same old debonair swagger that does duty for church parades in Edinburgh." Cheering was a far rarer phenomenon in South Africa than some correspondents led their readers to believe but, for once, the Canadians jumped to their feet and shouted themselves hoarse. "It was the heartiest and most spontaneous thing I witnessed during the whole campaign," McHarg recalled.
The battalion rested at Florida for a few days and then, for another day, in the outskirts of Johannesburg itself. A few of the Canadians had a chance to visit the tawdry sights of the overblown mining town. On Sunday, June 3rd, the army moved again, this time on the final leg of the journey to Pretoria. Renewed Boer activity on his flanks left Lord Roberts with the troubled feeling that the Boer capital might not, after all, be the key to a final victory and it still seemed inconceivable that it would fall without a serious contest. Before the war the Boers had spent a small fortune to construct a ring of forts around the town. Surely they would defend them. They did not. Most of the guns had already been removed for use in the field, the rest destroyed. On June 5th, the commandant of Pretoria surrendered the town without a shot being fired.
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