Suffolk Regiment

The 1st Battalion arrived in Cape Town on 29th November 1899 and moved up to Colesberg on the railway between Blomfontein and Pretoria.

Their first major action, a night attack on 5th/6th January 1900, was doomed to failure through lack of experience and a failure to reconnoitre properly. They attacked a Boer force entrenched on Red or Grassy Hill in a forlorn, but heroic, attempt to take the hill. The Commanding Officer and 36 others were killed outright; a further 99 were captured. The hill is now known as Suffolk hill. Those who died were buried in Colesberg Military Cemetery. The Battalion then joined Lord Roberts's force that advanced on Pretoria and then, later, the Battalion did duty protecting 35 miles of blockhouse line.

Companies from all three Volunteer Battalions served for periods throughout the war.

In February 1900 the Battalion provided two Mounted Infantry Companies for the newly formed Mounted Infantry Regiments. These were raised as a direct requirement to combat the Boers mobility; cavalry movement, with infantry firepower when dismounted could be used to take advantage. Near the end of the war one Suffolk Company rode 99 miles within 24 hours capturing the Boer General Botha and his Staff along the way.

The regiment's losses throughout the conflict were 8 officers and 147 N.C.O.'s and men.

The 1st Battalion arrived home on 29th September 1902; the War ended had ended with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging in May of that year.

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

THE 1st Battalion sailed on the Scot in November 1899, and arrived at the Cape on the 28th of that month. They were sent to assist General French in the Colesberg district. After the battalion had been about a month in the colony they entered on an enter­prise which was to prove most disastrous. In the early morning of the 1st January the Berkshires had suc­cessfully assaulted a hill forming part of the Colesberg defences. On the 4th the Boers had been driven from other hills, but there was still another hill—Grassey or Suffolk Hill — on the north-west portion of the defences which General French considered to be the key to the position.

On the 5th it was carefully reconnoitred, and the possibility of its capture was discussed with Colonel Watson. General French says: 1 “I gave him a free hand to rush the position at night if he saw a favour­able chance, but he was to inform me and all the troops in his neighbourhood of his intention to do so. I heard no more, but left Rensburg at 2 A.M. and reached the Colesberg position shortly before dawn. At dawn we heard sharp musketry-fire in the direction of Grassey Hill. I directed Colonel Eustace to get his guns into position to assist the attack which I thought Colonel Watson must be making. The artillery got into action at once against the Grassey Hill defences, but in a few minutes I received news that nearly 300 men of the Suffolk Regiment had returned to camp, having received an order from ‘some one’ to retire.” General French “considered that Colonel Watson and his four companies would have attained success had the majority of his men not been seized with panic and retired.” The colonel and other 3 officers and 25 men were killed and 1 officer and 23 men were wounded; 5 officers and over 100 men were taken prisoners. Night attacks are proverbially dangerous. Here the enemy had been found on the alert, and a murderous fire had been poured into the troops before they could get in with the bayonet or take cover.

Courts of inquiry were held, the evidence before which is printed in the proceedings of the War Com­mission. Captain Brett said that their orders were to charge without firing. They advanced up the hill, but were met by a heavy fire; the enemy appeared to be quite close. After a short interval the colonel gave the order to retire; confusion arose owing to the darkness and roughness of the ground. The colonel then ordered him to take the crest of the hill, where it seems the leading company still held its ground. Witness advanced as ordered, but appears to have done so with only a portion of his company. He was then wounded, and lay unconscious. On recovering he found himself among a number of killed and wounded. Shells from the British guns then commenced to fall among them. Eventually Captain Brett surrendered. The courts exonerated the officers and men, and it is noted that “no evidence, however, appears to have been given before any court of inquiry showing the circumstances of the panic in the rear of the force,” as referred to by Lieut.-General French.

This affair was a very unfortunate beginning to the battalion’s campaigning career, and it was a long time before it was again permitted to go into the fighting line—but the time did come.

After some service in the Orange River Colony the battalion moved to the Transvaal. In the beginning of July 1900 they were with General French, whose force was distributed2 about thirty miles south-east of Pretoria, and shortly advanced eastwards, occupying Middelburg on the 26th.

August Lord Roberts made another great stride towards Koomati Poort. At Wonderfontein the Suffolks were placed under Mahon, the reliever of Mafeking, and with that officer joined French at Carolina on 6th September.2 Before that general could reach Barberton he had to cross mountains of great height, and one of the feats of the war was the taking of the guns and transport over these mountains. The infantry had to haul waggons up the one side and to hold on behind at the other side until the soles were knocked off their boots.

On 2nd and 3rd October French left Barberton for Machadodorp, and started thence for Heidelberg with three brigades of cavalry, three batteries of Horse Artillery, and one-half of the Suffolks. Almost every day the force was opposed, and there was much stiff fighting.3

In the beginning of November Smith-Dorrien operated near Belfast, where there was a strong force of Boers.

Part of the Suffolks were with him, and on the 6th drove the enemy from a strong position.5

Nine officers and 12 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in Lord Roberts’ final despatches.

In November 1900 the Suffolks were railed down to the Bethulie-Aljwal North district to assist General Knox in the pursuit of De Wet, and also in keeping the enemy out of Cape Colony,6 and when the pressure there had relaxed they were sent north again. In the first quarter of 1901 part of the battalion accompanied Smith - Dorrien from Belfast district to Piet Retief and thence northwards again.7 The battalion was later taken to assist in the erecting and garrisoning of block­houses in the Western Transvaal.8

It is satisfactory that after its unfortunate start the battalion purchased its redemption by consistently good work during a period of nearly two years.

The Mounted Infantry of the battalion saw much stiff fighting, and were in the brilliant action at Bothaville, 6th November 1900.9 (See Oxfordshire Light Infantry.)

In Lord Kitchener’s final despatch 3 officers and 5 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned.

1 Despatch of 2nd February 1900.
2 Lord Roberts' despatch of 10th October 1900, para. 25.
3 Ibid., para. 34.
4 Ibid., 15th November 1900, para. 23.
5 Lord Roberts’ despatch of 15th November 1900, para. 26.
6 Lord Kitchener’s despatch of 8th March 1901.
7 War Record of the Cameron Highlanders, Inverness, 1903.
8 Lord Kitchener’s despatches, 8th August 1901 and 8th October 1901.
9 Letter from Lieutenant Brooke, published in ‘The Oxfordshire Light Infantry in South Africa.’ He said: “Here on the left flank we had a desperate hot fight. . . . Two hundred of them got within 70 yards of one of our guns, and would have captured it but for a magnificent man in the Suffolk Mounted Infantry who was escorting the gun with only six men. He held his ground, gave the order to fix bayonets, then looking round saw a maxim strapped on the back of a mule. He got up, calmly walked back, and brought the maxim into action, driving off the Boers at once.” Major Taylor in his official report specially mentioned the Suffolk Mounted Infantry.

Suffolk Hill

Cambridgeshire Times – 12/1/1900

The Disaster to the 1st Suffolk’s

About midnight on Saturday, Colonel Watson, having urged the General to grant him peradanton was allowed to attempt to occupy a very important hill commanding the road to Colesberg Bridge.  The hill presents a bare face with a gentle accent towards our position by rugged rocks, and has a steep front towards the back.  Four companies of the Suffolk Regiment marched on the hill and took up a position.  The Boers appeared in force from the east front, and opened a hot fire.

A cry of “Retire” was raised, it is said by some of the Boers, and about two thirds of our men retired.

The remainder held the position for twenty minutes longer, and then being outnumbered and surrounded, they surrendered.

Colonel Watson was wounded and taken prisoner.  Six other officers and about seventy men are killed or wounded, or in the hands of the Boers.

Local Men Killed and Missing


Pte. Prigg, (who has a sister at Stuntney)

Slightly Wounded:

Pte. Phipps, Ely.


Sergt. Frost, Little Downham

Pte. J. Wayman, Ely

Pte. A. Case, March

Pte. J. Rayment, Chatteris

Sergt. G. Claridge, Chatteris

Pte. H. Hodson, Chatteris

Pte. C. McCue, Manea

Pte. G. Pears, Walsoken

[This list is as complete as it can be made.]


Cambridgeshire Times - 9/2/1900

Five Thousand Boers against the Brave Little Band

Another interesting account of the fight is given in a letter from Private W.H. Garford.  Private Garford was one of the Wisbech reservists, and in writing to his mother, who resides on the Elm road, from Arundel, on Jan 12, he says:-

“On January 1st we arrived at Koleskop at 9.30, and after halting for an hour received orders to occupy a hill on the left flank.  There we remained under fire for four days and nights without any rest, losing four men killed and ten wounded.  We understood that we were to be relieved by our remaining four companies from Rensburg for a little rest.  In a short time, however, we received orders that we were to parade at 4.30am on the 5th for the purpose of taking Red Hill.  Somehow or other the order was cancelled, and at 12pm on the 5th, we were roused in silence and told that we had to take Red Hill.  So on we marched, as steady as a wall, little thinking of the dreadful straits awaiting us.  After marching on about a thousand yards in quarter column, a whistle was heard similar to that of a bird.  We all made the remark that it was a signal to the enemy, to let them know that we were coming.  Little or no notice was taken of it, and we still marched on, when another whistle was heard similar to the first, but no particular attention was paid to either.  Then came the order, fix bayonets, but no one was to fire a shot on any account until dawn.  On we marched, clambering from rock to rock until we reached the brow of the hill, where the command ‘halt’ was given.  Colonel Watson called out the officers commanding the companies to the front, and they all stood on the summit scanning the enemy’s position, when a single shot was fired.  The order was given to lie down, and then a terrible fusillade of rifle fire was poured into us from 15 to 20 paces.  The Commanding Officer finding he had made a mistake by marching us into that terrible trap, gave the order ‘H Company advance’.  Seeing, however, his men falling down like hail, he then gave the order to retire and get away as quickly as possible.  I believe most of the officers fell at this period, for only one of them was seen again.  On rallying for another charge we met with a terrible flank fire and were compelled to retreat for better shelter, while our comrades were falling like hail all around us.  The only officer returning out of twelve was Major Graham, who was foremost in the fight and received three wounds.  He also states that there must have been between five and six thousand of the enemy holding the position, which was strongly fortified, against a brave little band numbering 400 of the Suffolk Regiment, viz., A, B, D and H Companies, the enemy averaging 15 to 1.  Our total losses were four officers killed, seven wounded, six of whom were taken prisoners.  Rank and file: killed 36, wounded 49, missing 99; being a total of 195 casualties.  Personally, I am all right, but I do not think I shall get into a worse fire if we stop here for a year.  The enemy’s firing was dreadful and in total darkness.  They were hidden behind well fortified walls, with only small loop holes for them to fire through.  I lost my right and left hand men, whilst standing at the summit of the hill, one being George Pears, of Wisbech.  He was one of the six reservists that left the town when I did.  The other remaining pulled through with only a scratch or two from explosive bullets.  Poor old ‘Minty’ Hotson is missing, but I cannot say whether he is killed or taken prisoner.  I cannot tell you how we are to manage now, for most of our officers have gone, and we are put back from the fighting line in reserve, awaiting for reinforcements of officers and men.”

The Suffolks at Colesberg

Last updated 17 February, 2009

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