Only a fortnight after disembarkation at Cape Town, having journeyed 500 kilometres in a north-easterly direction, the Lancers detrained at De Aar Junction. It was thought that a start into action would be made as soon as the horses had got over the journey. But there was still insufficient equipment, with enough weapons for only a few. Hurriedly, a troop under Lieutenant S. F. Osborne was given what was available, and away they went, to the disappointment of the remainder of the squadron. With Lieutenant Osborne were S.S.M. Robson (Lismore) , Sergeant McDonald (Ballina) , Sergeant Dooley (Berry) , Corporal Hopf (Lismore), Lance-Corporal Ford (Lismore) , and 23 troopers. They were called by the British regiments "The Fighting Twenty-nine".
In mid-November 1899, the fighting 29, were attached to the 9th Lancers in Lord Methuen’s column advancing north on South Africa’s western railway toward Kimberley. Kimberly then a rich Diamond mining town was in Cape Colony, but a few kilometres from the Orange Free State. It was under siege by the forces of General Cronje; an astute tactician.
Cronje had deployed the first of his covering forces at Belmont, on the rail line about 100 km from Kimberley. They were commanded by General Koos De la Rey.
Lance armed cavalry were best used against infantry in the open. Wellington had adopted the lance when he had seen what French lancers could do to his infantry squares. By 1899, infantry did not form square, but they often deployed quickly taking advantage of natural cover if available. A tactic forced on those deploying from horseback when on the move, and all of the Boer soldiers were mounted.
On 21 November 1899, reconnaissance party, consisting of the 9th Lancers, including the NSWL troop and Rimington's Guides, was ordered in advance to scout the area in the vicinity of Belmont. Heading out from Fincham's Farm (about 10 km south west of Belmont, near the rail line), they spied several hundred Boers climbing up a kopje (hill) at Belmont.
Our troop were used by the 9th Lancers as a rear-guard, ready to deploy and provide covering fire for withdrawal if necessary.
The following day, the British reached Thomas' Farm, three kilometres south of Belmont. The advance party of lancers had deployed forward and was fired upon by soldiers dug in and un-assailable by the lance. The rear-guard deployed, making use of available cover to provide covering fire with their rifles. The 9th Lancers were able to withdraw successfully.
This delivery of covering fire, whilst hardly the hand to hand combat Australian soldiers were to become renown for, was the first time Australians as part of an Australian unit in Australian uniforms had engaged in combat.
Methuen ordered the artillery forward to return fire and the Boer fire ceased. At midnight, the troops bivouacked and prepared for battle. The subsequent battle was fought by British regulars mostly Coldstream Guards. It was ultimately successful. The 9th Lancers, the NSW Lancer Troop a squadron of Rimmington Guides and a company of Mounted Infantry were the only mounted troops; and were thus used to follow up the Boer withdrawal toward the Modder River and Magersfontein where Lord Methuen’s column was eventually halted.
Australian Troops involved:
References: PV Vernon (ed) The Royal New South Wales Lancers 1885 - 1985, and Stephen Miller Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging Journal December 1996
John Howells 2012
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