Topic: BW - NSW - NSW Inf
Legge Letter 28 February 1900
After the arrival of Captain JW Legge in South Africa, he sent a series of letters to Sydney describing the activities of the New South Wales Infantry Contingent. They are a mixture of action and issues and so allow the reader to get to know this unit in an intimate manner. The personality of Legge comes through very clearly in his commentaries. The following is a transcript of his undated letter of about 28 February 1900.
From Officer Commanding NSW Company (Infantry)
To the CSO NSW
I have the honour to state that I have been so pressed in time that I have had no opportunity to write of late.
During the middle of January there were a number of alarms at Enslin and we had a great deal of outpost work on the kopjes.
On the 22nd January it was definitely announced that the Australians were to be converted to Mounted Infantry, and we were hard at work testing the men in riding and practising the poor riders on mules and in stable duties with the horse lines of any mounted troops near us.
On 30th January we marched to Belmont, and entrained there on 31st January, arriving at Naauwpoort on the morning of 1st February. Here we received horses. The horses were from Madras Cavalry Regiment and were evidently not culled out as the best, as was also the saddlery, most of which was perished. We have been patching it ever since.
On 3rd February we proceeded by train to Rensburg, and were inspected "mounted" by the General Officer Commanding, General Clements, on the following morning. The General Officer Commanding was pleased with the Company and could hardly be induced to believe that we had only had one drill mounted. Of course the horses know their duty and so simplified matters considerably.
On 4th February we marched out to the Kloof Camp, west of Rensburg, on the outpost line against Colesberg, and first came under fire while entering Camp, from one of the enemy's Maxim Vicars guns, which fires a stream of shells weighing about 1½ pounds. There were no casualties. This gun is much used by the Boers and is called by our people the "pom-pom" gun, also the "Ten a penny". The effect, morally speaking, is worse even than heavy rifle fire or shrapnel, though the actual damage is generally less than either.
Since writing last time three men have been sent away to hospital with enteric fever, Privates Murray, Bradstock and Sergeant Coles. They have not yet returned.
Three men were poisoned with bad meat and sent to Naauwpoort, Corporal Buckleton and Privates Saxelby and Whiley. They have now recovered and returned to duty. Private Coxhead has returned to duty from hospital at Cape Town. Private Bright is still in hospital as reported in my last letter.
At the Kloof Camp we had a constant succession of outpost work on distant points and were often under fire, even in the Camp, from shots that passed over the outposts.
The force on the Colesberg - Rensburg line had been very much weakened to assist in forming the column which Lord Roberts was arranging for the relief of Kimberley.
The Boers consequently commenced to press us all along a front of about 15 miles.
On 9th February I had to send half the Company with Lieutenants Holmes and Logan to reinforce Slingersfontein on the other side of Rensburg.
On 10th February my half Company were on outpost on the left, nearest to the Victorian Camp at the Windmill Valley. These two outposts were driven in with loss from Bastard's Neck and Hobkirk's Farm. I was ordered round to their support, being relieved by infantry. Some guns (15 pounder) and Inniskillings from Maeders Farm also came up.
The enemy were checked and temporarily held during that day and the following, but were bringing up Pom Pom guns, a 15 pounder which they use as a howitzer by putting the trail in a hole in the ground, and a 6 inch gun (about 40 pounder).
This we did not know until the morning of 12th February, when two of our field guns went down to a breastwork about 5,000 yards from Bastard's Nek, close to a large dam. The artillery were subjected to a heavy shrapnel fire, and as snipers were coming out, I had to take 20 men down to the dam as a covering party. The men obeyed well and we covered 1,000 yards on the flat at a gallop under shrapnel and pom-pom fire. There were no casualties among the men. Four horses were shot but not permanently damaged, my own in two places, by shrapnel bullets. We remained there 5 hours when the guns had to retire under fire, and we followed after they were out of range, again without casualties.
The ridge at Hobkirk's Farm on the left of us had been gradually forced by the Boers with rifle and artillery fire, although the Victorians fought well and saved a Company of Wiltshires.
We then held the valley with this line of mounted men skirmishing until dark while the Kloof Camp and Cole's Kop in our rear were evacuated. From 6 pm to 12 pm we then held the hills while the Infantry retired, the Victorian Mounted Rifles and our men joining the rear guard to Maeder's Farm.
As we were not in Camp ourselves much of our baggage was lost on the way or left at the Kloof Camp.
Arriving at Maeder's the retreat was continued, the South Australians and our Mounted Men being rearguard. We left them at 2 am and reached Rensburg in good order at 6 am on 13 February 1900. We had been three days and nights out without any rest, and during the last 38 hours the horses had no water and only one half feed.
The other half Company, which had done good work under Holmes at Slingersfontein as escort to guns and on outpost, joined us, and, after feeding and watering, I was sent on with my Company only to escort a Royal Engineers Park from Rensburg to Arundel. No enemy was met.
The following night Rensburg was evacuated and the whole force retired to Arundel, pursued by the Boers, who cut off two companies of the Wiltshires. Their artillery was at this time far superior to ours.
On 14th February we took part in a reconnaissance as escort to guns. Pte Murphy's horse was killed by shrapnel.
On 15th February half the Company was on outpost the other half scouting to the right rear. The Boers have worked round to a considerable extent on both flanks and do a good deal of sniping.
On 17th February we took part in another reconnaissance and were under a heavy artillery cross fire but without loss.
The duty here is extremely arduous and the men and horses are worked to the uttermost.
On 20th February we went out with a force to repel an attack upon our right rear. One Division under Lieutenant Dove was escort to some of the guns, where unfortunately Private Atchison was killed by a shell together with his horse, and Private Southey very slightly wounded.
With the other three divisions, subsequently reinforced by a Victorian Mounted Rifles Division, we were sent to occupy some kopjes in front. After crossing with the two divisions under fire and taking two ridges we received an order to retire which appears more to have been meant for us. The men retired under a heavy rifle fire and kept their heads well. Finding the order was never intended we again went across and by evening drove the Boers along 5 miles of ridges. Of course we were assisted greatly by a cross fire from our Artillery. At dusk we were with 55 rifles and 20 in reserve opposed to 200 Boers in a farm and on the opposite ridge. The rest of our men were holding the other part of the ridge already taken. Here we came to a stop and had a furious rifle duel, which the Boers finished up by firing shrapnel from an invisible gun at about 1,000 yards. They also used explosive bullets. We had good cover however and had no other loss. The whole of the Company, even the horses and horse holders on the far side of the ridge were under a dropping fire and it is really wonderful how we escaped.
As my orders were to secure all I took, I had to move from one part to another, and entrenched the firing line to Lieutenant Holmes, who acted with great dash and coolness. At dusk we received orders to return to the guns, and went back to camp with them. The Boers have not since returned to this farm and ridge, called Wolfefontein. Major Enthoven, Royal Artillery was kind enough to send over and say that "We could not have done better."
No. 17 Private Atchison (Samuel Charles) was a single man, whose mother lives at Shellhabour. He died doing his duty and was a very good lad. He has been buried near the Headquarters at Arundel.
On 21st February, we were ordered out early to the left outposts near Potgieter's Farm to support No. 4 Field Battery under Major Butcher, Royal Artillery. We were met about 3 miles to the left where the Boers were trying out their turning movement. After a reinforcement of guns on the morning of the 22nd February, our force advanced west from the outpost line two miles out another force from Camp attacked the Boers on the South, and subjected them to a heavy shell fire. Lieutenant Dove did an excellent piece of scouting on the right with his division and drove off the Boer patrols, thus rendering the advance of the guns possible.
About 3 pm the Boers retired in great haste making north, and we returned to camp at night.
The last fortnight has been extremely trying to men and horses, constantly standing to arms even when in Camp, broken rest and irregular and deficient food and water. The latter is not the fault of the Army Supply Corps but due to the rapid moves we have to make as mounted men.
I expect that we shall make another move forward in a few days.
I have the honour to be
Your obedient servant
JW Legge, Captain
Commander NSW Infantry Contingent
(Now Mounted Infantry).
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Citation: New South Wales Infantry Contingent, Legge Letter 28 February 1900