Extract taken from 'Our Regiments in South Africa' by John Stirling
published by Naval and Military Press Ltd

THE 1st Battalion arrived in South Africa from India about the end of December 1901, and in his despatch of 8th January 1902 Lord Kitchener remarks, “On receipt of the news of this successful attack” (that is, the capture of about a battalion of Yeomanry at Tweefontein on 25th December 1901) “I arranged to reinforce General Rundle by the 1st Black Watch and 4th King’s Royal Rifles.” General Rundle issued an order to the colonel of the 1st Black Watch stating that their expeditious march and timely arrival had saved a critical situation.

The battalion was afterwards chiefly employed on the construction of the blockhouse lines, and in guarding these lines during the big driving operations which went on in the north of the Orange River Colony down to the close of the campaign.

In Lord Kitchener’s final despatch 7 officers and 9 non-commissioned officers of the Royal Highlanders were mentioned, but these names embraced both 1st and 2nd Battalions.

The 2nd Battalion arrived at the Cape about 13th November 1899.

Along with the 1st Highland Light Infantry, 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, and 1st Argyll and Sutherlaind Highlanders, they formed the 3rd or Highland Brigade, under Major-General Wauchope, and afterwards under Major-General Hector Macdonald.

While Lord Methuen was preparing for his advance towards Kimberley, and until after the battle of Modder River, on 28th November (see 3rd Grenadier Guards), the Black Watch was employed in the De Aar-Naauwpoort country The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders joined Lord Methuen in time to be of great assistance at Modder River. The other three battalions and their adored brigadier entered the camp some days after that battle.

The Black Watch will for many a year henceforth be associated with a battle which was to them and the other distinguished regiments of the brigade a day of disaster, yet scarcely of defeat. Excepting Spion Kop, no engagement of the campaign has so engrossed public attention as, or aroused more discussion than, Magersfontein. Regarding the scheme of the battle and the events in the fighting line the most diverse opinions have been uttered, so that to arrive at the truth some trouble and care are needed.

Lord Methuen’s despatch—that is, the one which is published—is dated 15th February 1900, more than two months after the battle took place. It was therefore not penned in haste. The general had most ample time to collect particulars regarding incidents which did not take place under his personal observation, but it is possible he did not make use of his opportunities. This view is strengthened by the fact that in the covering despatch of 17th February 1900 Lord Roberts said, “Lord Methuen has been asked to expedite the submission of the complete list of officers and men of the Black Watch whom he considers worthy of special mention.” In addition to the despatch, many other accounts have been published which, in matters of some importance, conflict with the despatch, and on other points supplement it considerably In the despatch Lord Methuen, after giving his reasons, says, para. 8 “I decided to continue my advance to Kimberley and attack the Magersfontern kopje.” Para. 9 “With this purpose I gave orders for the kopje to be bombarded from 4.50 P.M. to 6.40 P.M. on the 10th December with all my guns, including the naval 4.7-inch.” Lord Methuen’s artillery consisted of the naval guns, the 18th, 62nd, and 75th Batteries R.F.A., and G Battery R.H.A. Para. 10 “At daybreak on 11th December the southern end of the kopje was to be assaulted by the Highland Brigade, supported by all the guns, their right and rear being protected by the Guards Brigade.” Para. 11 “Judging from the moral effect produced by the guns in my three previous actions, and the additional anticipated effect of lyddite, I expected great destruction of life in the trenches, and a considerable demoralising effect on the enemy’s nerves, thereby indirectly assisting the attack at daybreak.” Para. 12 “In accordance with the orders issued, of which I attach a copy, the artillery on the 10th fired with accuracy and effect on the kopje and the trenches at the foot from 4.30 P.M. to 6.45P.M.”

It is difficult to say what effect their bombardment did have. The doctor who was at the head of the O V.S. Ambulance Corps states that on the 10th their casualties from our artillery - fire were three wounded. Further, the bombardment may have been prejudicial to the attack next day, because it almost certainly announced that an attack would follow, and that the British had not properly located the trenches. Lord Methuen had a balloon, but for some unknown reason it was not used on the 10th, and there is cause to believe that the trenches in front of the foot of the kopje were not known about until the fire came from them next day The balloon could easily have located those trenches.

The Highland Brigade, supported on their right and rear by the Guards Brigade, were to assault the south-easterly point of the kopje at daybreak on the 11th, the kopje being the south-east part of the range held by the Boers, but they had trenches on the flat country extending from this kopje in a south-easterly direction for a distance of several miles to the Modder River to protect their communication with Jacobsdal. The Highland Brigade, commanded by Major-General Wauchope and guided by Major Benson, moved off in pitchy darkness at 12.30 A.M. Very soon a thunderstorm and deluge of rain came on which lasted till daybreak. “The brigade was to march in mass of quarter column, the four battalions keeping touch, ropes to be used if necessary” It is uncertain whether the words last quoted were part of the orders of Lord Methuen, but the formation, doubtless, was approved by his lordship. It has been criticised on the ground that it exposed the troops to tremendous danger if a counter-attack was suddenly made, but, on the other hand, it is absolutely certain that on such a night no other formation could have been kept at all. So wild and dark was the night that, according to ‘The Times’ historian, Cronje himself lost his way in his own lines and only by accident found himself at the kopje when the attack commenced, having intended to be farther west. Military men have to rely on experience. Under modern conditions there has been only one successful night attack, that of Tel-el-Kebir. The Black Watch were there also. On that occasion the formation in the advance was that adopted by the Highland Brigade. A brigade cannot get out of that formation by deployment, especially in pitchy darkness, in a few minutes, while it takes a great deal longer for the companies to get into extended order. It appears from the despatch, para. 17, that it was intended that “three battalions were to extend just before daybreak.” From this it may be gathered that it was intended that the actual attack should commence after dawn, as men could not assault a position in this open order in the dark. If an assault is to take place in the darkness, anything but close order is held by very competent authorities to be impracticable.

According to Major - General Wauchope’s explanations before moving off, he intended the Black Watch to move to the east or rear of the kopje, the Seaforths direct on its south - east face, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highianders to their left, but, according to the despatch, what actually took place was somewhat different, and as the matter is of so much interest it will be pardonable to quote that document, giving afterwards some remarks made by responsible officers who were present. The letters in brackets connect the passages with the remarks.

Para. 18 “What happened was as follows Not finding any signs of the enemy on the right flank just before daybreak, which took place at 4 A.M., as the brigade was approaching the foot of the kopje, Major-General Wauchope gave the order for the Black Watch to extend, but to direct its advance on the spur in front, the Seaforth Highlanders to prolong to the left, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to prolong to the right, the Highland Light Infantry in reserve (a). Five minutes earlier (the kopje looming in the distance), Major Benson had asked Major - General Wauchope if he did not consider it time to deploy (b). Lieut. -Colonel Hughes - Hallett states that the extension could have taken place 200 yards sooner, but the leading battalion got thrown into confusion (c) in the dark by a very thick bit of bush about 20 to 30 yards long. The Seaforth Highlanders went round this bush to the right, and had just got into its original position behind the Black Watch when the order to extend was given by Major - General Wauchope to the Black Watch. The Seaforth Highlanders and two companies of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were also moving out, and were in the act of extending when suddenly a heavy fire was poured in by the enemy, most of the bullets going over the men. Lieut.-Colonel Hughes-Hallett at once ordered the Seaforths to fix bayonets and charge the position. The officers commanding the other battalions acted in a similar manner. At this moment some one gave the word ‘Retire.’ Part of the Black Watch then rushed back through the ranks of the Seaforths. Lieut.-Colonel Hallett ordered his men to halt and lie down, and not to retire. It was now becoming quite light, and some of the Black Watch were a little in front, to the left of the Seaforths” (d).

Para. 19 “The artillery, advancing to the support of the attack, had opened fire from the time it was light enough to see.”

Para. 20 “No orders having been received by the Seaforths, the commanding officer advanced the leading units to try and reach the trenches, which were about 400 yards off, but the officers and half the men fell before a very heavy fire, which opened as soon as the men moved. About ten minutes later the Seaforths tried another rush, with the same result. Colonel Hughes - Hallett then considered it best to remain where he was till orders came.”

Para. 21 “Meanwhile the 9th Lancers, the 12th Lancers, G Battery Royal Horse Artillery, and Mounted Infantry were working on the right flank.”

Para. 22 “At 12 midnight on the 10th the 12th Lancers and Guards marched from camp, the former to join the Cavalry Brigade, the latter to protect the right and rear of the Highland Brigade. Considering the night, it does Major-General Sir Henry Colvile immense credit that he carried out his orders to the letter, as did Major-General Babington.”

Para. 23 “A heavy fire was maintained the whole morning. The Guards Brigade held a front of about 1 3/4 miles. The Yorkshire Light Infantry protected my right flank with five companies, three companies being left at a drift.”

Para. 24 “Captain Jones, Royal Engineers, and Lieutenant Grubb were with the balloon section, and gave me valuable information during the day I learned from this source, at about 12 noon, that the enemy were receiving large reinforcements from Abutsdam and from Spytfontein.”

Para. 25 “The enemy held their own on this part of the field, for the under feature was strongly intrenched, concealed by small bushes, and on slight undulations.”

Para. 26 “At 12 noon I ordered the battalion of ‘Gordons,’ which was with the supply column, to support the Highland Brigade. The trenches, even after the bombardment by lyddite and shrapnel since daybreak, were too strongly held to be cleared.”

Para. 27 “The ‘Gordons’ advanced in separate half-battalions, and though the attack could not be carried home, the battalion did splendid work throughout the day” (e).

Para. 28 “At 1 P.M. the Seaforths found themselves exposed to a heavy cross-fire, the enemy trying to get round to the right. The commanding officer brought his left forward. An order to ‘Retire’ was given, and it was at this time that the greater part of the casualties occurred (f). The retirement continued for 500 yards, and the ‘Highlanders’ remained there till dusk. Lieut.-Colonel Downman, commanding Gordons, gave the order to retire,1 because he found his position untenable, so soon as the Seaforth Highlanders made the turning movement to the right.”

Para. 29. “This was an unfortunate retirement, for Lieut. -Colonel Hughes-Hallett had received instructions (g) from me to remain in position until dusk, and the enemy were at this time quitting the trenches by tens and twenties.”

Para. 30 “I have made use of Lieut. - Colonel Hughes-Hallett’s report (the acting brigadier) for the description of the part the Highland Brigade took in the action.”

Para. 31 “Major-General Wauchope told me, when I asked him the question, on the evening of the 10th, that he quite understood his orders, and made no further remark. He died at the head of the brigade, in which his name will always remain honoured and respected. His high military reputation and attainments disarm all criticism. Every soldier in my division deplores the loss of a fine soldier and a true comrade.”

Para. 32 “The attack failed. The inclement weather was against success, the men in the Highland Brigade were ready enough to rally, but the paucity of officers and non - commissioned officers rendered this no easy matter. I attach no blame to this splendid brigade. From noon until dark I held my own opposite to the enemy’s intrenchments.”

Para. 33 “G Battery Royal Horse Artillery fired hard till dark, expending nearly 200 rounds per gun.”

Para. 34 “Nothing could exceed the conduct of the troops from the time of the failure of the attack at daybreak. There was not the slightest confusion, though the fight was carried on under as hard conditions as one can imagine, for the men had been on the move from midnight and were suffering terribly from thirst. At 7 15 P.M. fighting ceased, the Highland Brigade formed up under cover, the Guards Brigade held my front, the Yorkshire Light Infantry secured my right flank, the cavalry and guns were drawn in to behind the infantry”

The following remarks are made on the authority and with the permission of responsible officers of the Black Watch who were present —
(a) The order sent at the last minute was for both the Seaforths and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to deploy to the right, probably due to the Black Watch not being so much to the east as had been intended.
(b) There is every reason for hesitation in accepting this statement. General Wauchope was seen to place his hand on Major Benson’s shoulder and interrogate him as to his whereabouts. Major-General Wauchope would not keep his force in quarter column a single moment longer than the situation required. No one knew better the proper tactical formation suited for the occasion.
(c) This is absolutely denied by the surviving officers of the Black Watch who can speak to the facts. One of these says “In the three leading companies of the Black Watch of whom I can speak there was no confusion whatever.” Another says “There was no confusion in the Black Watch when moving through the bushes. The battalion moved through in file and formed up in perfect order on the far side of the bushes—that is, the side next the Boer trenches. After these bushes were past the Seaforths did form up behind the Black Watch.”
(d) The orders for the battalions to deploy, referred to in (a), had been given, and the colonel of the Black Watch was proceeding to get the battalion into attack formation when the fire from the Boer trenches burst out. Both Black Watch and Seaforths lay down for a few moments, then proceeded to deploy as ordered, the Seaforths to get out from behind the Black Watch, and the latter battalion to open the leading two and a half companies roughly to six paces across the head of the column. Another portion of the Black Watch was taken by Majors Berkeley and Cuthbertson to the right of the two and a half companies, and having passed through or over two wire fences, got close up to the trench at the foot of the kopje. The advances or rushes of the Seaforths barely reached the front lines of the Black Watch, but Lieutenant Wilson of the Seaforths did reach the kopje with a mixed party of men of both battalions. The alleged order to retire was not given by any officer or man of the Black Watch, and was not acted on m that battalion. There was no rushing back. The officer who commanded the rear company said “The men fell back slowly five or six paces, they then moved off half-right, following the other companies who deployed to the right. Those of them who did not reach the front line I found to the right of the place where the battalion was when fire opened on the force in quarter column, and in nowise behind it. If there had been any rushing back I would have seen it. I am certain nine-tenths of the battalion were in the front line hours after fire opened.” The same officer says “Very few of the Seaforths were able to reach the front lines of the Black Watch. About 10 A.M. the leading lines of the Black Watch were obliged to fall back, and did so on a supporting line of Seaforths.”
(e) The Gordons reached a point about 400 yards from the Boer trenches. All their endeavours to get farther in failed.
(f) The casualties in the Black Watch took place chiefly before 8 A.M.,—perhaps 50 per cent of them within the first hour’s firing
(g) No such instructions ever reached the Black Watch, perhaps because it was absolutely impossible to transmit them m any way Apart, however, from all instructions, one officer of the Black Watch and his surviving men remained till 7 P.M. at the point he reached shortly after fire broke out in the morning— that point being 270 yards from the trenches.

According to ‘The Times’ History, vol. ii. p. 402 et seq., the Seaforths pushed up among the Black Watch and to their right, and so well did some sections of both battalions work forward that Captain Macfarlan of the Black Watch, who was killed, “and some 20 or 30 men, rushed straight up the south-eastern point of the hill.” The fire of our men behind and of the British guns drove them down again. Lieutenant Cox of the Seaforths and three or four men climbed the hill, but the whole party were killed. Lieutenant Wilson of the same regiment and Sergeant Fraser of the Black Watch took a party of about 100 men round to the reverse side of the hill, and were climbing it there when they were driven back partly by British shrapnel. This party was also all shot down or captured.

The fact that very many of the Black Watch were found by the enemy, dead, close to his trenches, and were buried by him, is the best evidence that the battalion got forward a considerable distance from the point they were when fire opened,—approximately 300 yards from the trenches. For over twelve hours the battalion lay without food or water, with scarcely any cover, under a murderous fire at close range and from an enemy well concealed in intrenchments. That they were able to do so proves their splendid courage and discipline. Their losses were about 44 per cent.2 Notwithstanding this some ungenerous things have been said, perhaps by people who could never have stood the same trial. These people, military and other, have founded their criticism on two points—the alleged postponement by General Wauchope of the time for deploying and the alleged rushing hack. Neither point has been made good, and both allegations seem to be groundless. On the other hand, is there in history any record of a body of men coming through a similar trial, and coming out of it better as a whole2 It is very improbable that any commanding officer would seriously say that his men could have done more than was done by the Highland Brigade, and by the Black Watch in particular.

The dangers of a night attack are proverbial, and must occur to the least initiated. The general who orders one must lay his account for all contingencies. Lord Methuen knew the risks and took them. He should have been prepared for failure in the first rush, and that preparation, one would imagine, should have been readiness to throw at least one other brigade to the support of the attack, but instead of that he sent one battalion, a mere ineffectual driblet, utterly useless for turning the scale. He might have pushed the Boers hard on their right, but he did not, Pole-Carew’s movement being most apparently a “diversion.” The fact is, that Lord Methuen seems to have expected that by letting matters drift, and allowing his men to lie within decisive range till sunset, the Boers would bolt as at Modder River. The despatch certainly gives that impression. That method of winning battles does not seem commendable.

Major-General Macdonald arrived at Modder River in time to take the command of the brigade in the next active operation. In accordance with the orders of Lord Roberts, the brigade marched on 3rd February to Koodosberg Drift, some distance west of the camp. After some stiff fighting the hills commanding the drift were seized, and the brigade was then ordered to rejoin the main body In this affair the Black Watch lost Captain Eykyn, Lieutenant F G. Tait, and 2 men killed and 7 wounded.

On 10th February 1900 Lord Roberts placed General Colvile in command of the newly formed IXth Division, the 1st Brigade of which was the Highland (minus for a time the Highland Light Infantry). For a sketch of the work of the division as a whole see the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.

Having followed hard on the VIth Division, Colvile arrived at Paardeberg on 17th February Colvile’s bivouac that night was on the south side of the river and west of the Boer position. In obedience to Lord Kitchener’s orders the Highland Brigade was, early in the morning, sent to the south-east to reinforce Kelly-Kenny, and during the remainder of the attack does not seem to have been under Colvile’s orders. He gives, however, in his ‘Work of the IXth Division,’ a most excellent account of their doings.

Macdonald extended his men as he moved off to the south, he then turned to his left, or north-east, and advanced his three battalions across the plain towards the Boer-lined river-bank. When the advance had reached its farthest point the Seaforths were on the left of the line, the Black Watch in the centre, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the right, next to the men of the VIth Division.

Speaking of this advance, General Colvile says “Whoever ordered it, it was a very fine feat on the part of the Highlanders, and one of which they will always have reason to be proud. One can hardly say the ground was worse for advancing over under fire than that which the Guards had to deal with at the Modder River fight, for that would be impossible to find, but it was certainly as bad, and I never hope to see or read of anything grander than the advance of that thin line across the coverless plain, under a hail of lead from their invisible enemy in the river-banks.”

Some of the Black Watch and Seaforths, being assisted by Smith-Dorrien’s men on the north side, not only got close to the river, but two companies of the former with a part of the latter regiment actually crossed and advanced up the north bank, a company of the Black Watch being first across.3 The losses of the brigade were extremely severe, but these casualties were not wasted, the circle round Cronje was by their grand work much contracted and therefore strengthened. The Black Watch lost 1 officer and 13 men killed, and 4 officers and 90 men wounded, out of a total strength of 12 officers and 640 rank and file. In Lord Roberts’ despatch of 31st March 1900 4 officers and 5 non - commissioned officers and men were mentioned for good work at Paardeberg. Between 18th February and the end of April, when the IXth Division was broken up, the Highland Brigade had no very serious fighting What they did do during that period is briefly recounted under the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, the senior regiment of the division.

About the end of April the 19th Brigade was placed under Lieut.-General Ian Hamilton in the force which was to form the army of the right in the northern advance. On 30th April General Colvile, with the Highland Brigade, two 41 guns under Grant, and some 90 men of the Eastern Province Horse, marched to Waterval Drift, near Sannah’s Post. Next day the Highland Light Infantry again joined the brigade. Colvile’s force was ordered to follow and co-operate with Ian Hamilton in his march to Winburg. On 4th May the brigade had a chance of being of very great service. It fell to their lot to take the Babiansberg, on which the enemy were strongly posted. The Black Watch were on the left, the Highland Light Infantry in the centre, the Seaforths on the right, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in reserve. Colonel Carthew-Yorstoun handled the Black Watch “in a very clever way,” moving part of his men up a steep kloof, while the naval guns and the remainder of the infantry kept down the Boer fire. The attack was successful beyond the most sanguine expectations, and the Boers fled. In his telegram of 5th May Lord Roberts said, “The Black Watch distinguished themselves, and were very skilfully led.”

On 6th May the brigade marched into Winburg On the 17th Macdonald with the Black Watch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders marched on to Ventersburg. On the 22nd Colvile with the remainder of the force also set off. On the 24th the brigade moved to Blauwbosh, the enemy hovering around in force. On the 26th the Boers were found to be holding the Blauwberg strongly, and had to be cleared out. This was done after some stiff fighting, the Black Watch again having the lion’s share. They were in the centre, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on their left, and the Seaforths on the right. On the same evening the force entered Lindley General Colvile left Lindley on the 27th, and his column had not gone far before it was seen that the Boers were round him in considerable strength. At one time the Black Watch, acting as rear-guard, were heavily pressed. The same evening General Colvile sent a message to headquarters to the effect that De Wet with a large force and 13 guns was reported to be in the neighbourhood, and that with his big transport column and lack of cavalry he might have some difficulty in getting through to Heilbron, and he suggested that a demonstration be made from that town so as to assist him. The message did not get through. Before starting on the 28th he received the message from Colonel Spragge, commanding the 13th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry, telling that they were at Lindley, and needed help and food. It will be remembered that to that Colvile replied that he was eighteen miles from Lindley, that he could not send Spragge supplies, and he advised him to retire to the railway.

It would be out of place to discuss here with any fulness the wisdom of Colvile’s action in the matter, but as the affair is so mixed up with the history of the Highland Brigade some slight reference to it cannot but be made. General Colvile’s decision not to send or go to Spragge has been defended by himself and commended by some writers, his and their grounds being that (first) he had been ordered to be at Heilbron on the 29th, and he believed that his not being there might affect Lord Roberts’ forward movement. Sending back part of his force was really impossible in view of the strength of the enemy, and to go back with the whole would mean that Heilbron could not be reached on the 29th. (Second) It has been also said that Colvile’s force was itself not strong enough for the task of relieving Spragge. On the other hand, it has been said that General Colvile should at once have gone back, and the information at present available would point to this having been his proper course. Admitting that Colvile had been told to be at Heilbron on the 29th, he should surely have put the question to himself, “What further order would the Commander-in-Chief give me if he knew that this battalion of Yeomanry, which is really part of my own force, was in difficulties eighteen miles to my rear?” What the answer would have been cannot surely be in doubt for a second. The possession or non-possession of Heilbron by the Highland Brigade on the 29th could have had no appreciable effect on the progress of Lord Roberts with his immense force of 40,000 men, which had as yet swept away all opposition. If conceivably it could have had any effect, what mattered a couple of days’ delay 2 While the possibility of this battalion of fresh troops, unaccustomed to Boer warfare, being surrounded by the enemy, should have led any general to think their capture was a probability That the Yeomanry were really his own men is an important factor, for surely a general of division is in duty bound not to lose a battalion even at the risk of a technical divergence from orders given before it was possible to foresee the difficulties that battalion might find itself in. That Colvile’s return to Lindley would have resulted in joining forces with Spragge is almost beyond doubt. His brigade, helped by the naval guns, had beaten the Boers on the way into Lindley, and they were to beat them again on the 2 8th. The Yeomanry made a splendid defence, fighting with great gallantry till the 3 1st, when they were forced to surrender. For a very excellent account of their engagement see ‘Arts under Arms,’ by Maurice Fitzgibbon. Longmans, Green, & Co., 1901.

To return to the narrative, on the morning of the 28th the Highland Brigade continued its march on Heilbron, but very soon learned that progress was to be fiercely opposed. The Highland Light Infantry were placed in the front, the Black Watch on the left, the Seaforths on the right, while the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, acting as rear-guard, held a hill, Spitz Kop. The Highland Light infantry were able to occupy Roodepoort Ridge without much loss, and the pressure on the left was never serious, but the right flank and rear-guard had very stiff fighting till far on in the afternoon the enemy was, however, repulsed in all his attacks. The disposition of the brigade that evening is the best proof that General Macdonald had learned the value of extension, and further, that he had implicit confidence in the units of the brigade. At night the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders still held Spitz Kop, the Highland Light Infantry were occupying a position beyond a little river seven miles ahead, while the two flanks of the oblong figure were three miles apart. On this day, as in all previous actions, Grant’s two naval guns did splendid work, and the 5th Battery R.F.A., which had joined Colvile at Winburg, was also invaluable. In his account of the action General Colvile gave the Highland Brigade the highest praise. On the evening of the 29th the force, after some further fighting, entered Heilbron.

It may be thought undue space has been devoted to the fighting on this march, but having in view the great strength of the enemy then massed in the north-east of the Orange River Colony, the work of Colvile’s force has by very competent critics been considered of the highest order. To clear the same bit of country Sir A. Hunter had afterwards two and a half divisions under his command.

For a month the Highland Brigade remained about Heilbron enjoying what was comparatively a rest, but on desperately low rations, a convoy despatched to them on 5th June having been captured.

On 27th June General Colvile left for Pretoria. He had done work of a very high quality, he may have made one mistake, for which he paid heavily.

In the beginning of July General Macdonald and his brigade, now minus the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had been taken to the Transvaal, marched to Frankfort, arriving there on the 3rd, to take part in the operations of Sir A. Hunter, which had been designed to enclose a large Boer force in the Brandwater basin. During these operations, which were lengthy and arduous, the brigade did good work. On the 22nd General Hunter moved from Bethlehem with the Highland Brigade, some artillery, Lovat’s Scouts, Rimington’s Guides, &c., towards Retief Nek. On the 23rd the Highland Light Infantry had taken some low hills, while the Black Watch carried by assault in face of severe opposition a further crest, which practically turned the enemy’s position on the nek. In this action the Black Watch lost 2 officers and 17 men wounded, of whom 1 officer and 1 man died. On the night of the 23rd and morning of the 24th the Highland Light Infantry seized the higher hills. Next day, the Seaforths moving to the right, the Black Watch gained other positions, which made it necessary for the Boers to retreat.

On the 24th General Macdonald with the Highland Brigade and other troops set out to seize two other neks into the basin. On the 26th the Black Watch and Highland Light Infantry were employed under General Bruce Hamilton near Nauwpoort Nek, meeting opposition. This day the Black Watch had six casualties when carrying a spur. After further fighting the neks were seized by the 30th, but notwithstanding this, General Olivier and some 1200 Boers escaped northwards to Harrismith. Macdonald followed and occupied Harrismith, but was soon recalled to trek back and forward in the Bethlehem district. On the 15th August there was a stiff fight south of Heilbron, in which the Highland Light Infantry had about 50 casualties. It was soon apparent that the north-east of the Orange River Colony was to remain the fighting-ground of the Free Staters. Constant skirmishing continued to occur. On 13th September Macdonald defeated a strong force, driving them before him in confusion for a long distance. The Highland Brigade and Lovat’s Scouts captured 7 prisoners, 31 waggons, some dynamite, ammunition, &c. About this time the Boers began to move to the south of Bloemfontern and Macdonald was sent in that direction. The Black Watch went to Ladybrand and the Seaforths to Jagersfontein, Fauresmith, and other places.

In Lord Roberts’ final despatch 13 officers and 19 non-commissioned officers and men of the Black Watch were mentioned.

At the end of November 1900 Macdonald was put in command at Aliwal North. Henceforth the Highlanders scarcely acted as a brigade, the battalions being much separated. The Black Watch remained about Ladybrand in comparative quiet, but they bad one misfortune. Lord Kitchener in his despatch of 8th September 1901 says “On 22nd August a party of the Black Watch Mounted Infantry, detached from Ladybrand to Modder Poort to endeavour to drive any Boers found in that direction towards General Elliot’s right front, was caught in unfavourable ground and captured by a commando said to be under De Wet. Our casualties were 1 man killed and 1 officer and 4 men wounded, whilst the Boers who rushed the position had 5 men killed, including Field-Cornet Crowther.” About 60 men were taken prisoners.

In September 1901, when Botha was threatening Natal, the battalion was hurried through the Drakensbergs to guard the drifts about the Natal border. Afterwards a part of it was on the Standerton-Ermelo blockhouse line, while some companies were employed under Rimington and other column commanders in the great drives in the Heilbron Harrismith district between 5th and 28th February 1902.

The battalion had the honour of providing a company as escort to Captain Bearcroft’s 4.7 guns in Lord Roberts’ advance to Pretoria, also in that to Belfast, and in the subsequent movement of General French on Barberton.4 In his report dated 9th June 1900, referring to the advance on Pretoria on 4th June, Captain Bearcroft says, “The detachments of the Black Watch and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders under Captain Richardson of the latter regiment, detailed as escort for the guns, materially assisted in dispersing the snipers with long-range rifle-fire.”

In the later phases of the war 1 officer and 2 non-commissioned officers were mentioned in despatches by Lord Kitchener, and in his final despatch 7 officers and 9 non-commissioned officers were mentioned, but these embraced both battalions.

1Regarding this, reference is made to the notes under the 1st Gordons.

2 The losses were CoL Coode and 6 other officers and 88 non-commissioned officers and men killed, 11 officers and 207 non-commissioned officers and men wounded.

3 General Colvile in his report said, “The first man to cross the river at all was Piper D. Cameron, Black Watch, who did so voluntarily, and his pluck and daring are worthy of special recognition.”

4 Captain Bearcroft’s report of 24th September 1900, Gazette of 12th March 1901.

Last updated 17 September, 2009

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