Boer War March 22nd 1901


Letter from Trooper Frank Sleath of 65 Company, Imperial Yeomanry

Early in March the announcement appeared in the papers of the capture of this deservedly esteemed young soldier by the Boers, and the anxiety as to his fate on the part of his many relatives in this village was naturally great, and the fact that others who had been captured subsequently had been released, whereas nothing had been heard of him, of course intensified the feeling of alarm, for it was not known whether he was dead or alive. All ncertainty, however, as to his safety, was removed by the receipt of a letter from him to his brother, Mason, on the 14th ult., and it gives us much pleasure to insert the letter, which is an interesting one, and graphically describes the several incidents related therein :-

Graaff Reinet,

March 22nd, 1901,

"Dear Brother,-I am writing you a few lines to let you know that I am all right up to the present time. I meant to have answered your letter before this, but when you have read through this you see that I have had no chance to write letters the last few weeks. I don't know whether you have heard anything about twelve of us and an officer having been captured on March 6th, at Aberdeen, while out on patrol. I will let you how it happened.

On Tuesday morning, March 5th, we were at Aberdeen Road Station, which is 25miles distant from the town, we were waiting the arrival of our Convoy so that we could leave for Aberdeen, as the Boers were expected there every day. About mid-day the news came in that the town was attacked by a large Boer Commando, so we had to saddle up at once and be off. We were about 300strong, with two Lyddite guns, and we left a few men behind at the Station to bring the Convoy through. When we were half way on the road fifty of us were sent on ahead. We reached the town about 5 o'clock in the evening, the column arriving several hours after us, when we found that the Boers had attacked the town but had been driven off, but not before they had released twenty prisoners out of the gaol, and they left word behind them that they were going to attack again that night, so I can tell you the people were very pleased to see us. The column arrived about 8 o'clock."

We could not do anything that night, but were woke up early next morning by an officer, who told us that 15of us had to go out on patrol to see if we could find the whereabouts of the enemy. There were three patrols out that morning, and we were in the centre with the captain of the town guard as our guide. There were sixteen of the Dragoons about a mile away from us on the right, and the same number of the 70Company Imperial Yeomanry on our left. We were all in extended order, with two men on either side to connect us with the other patrols. About two-and-a-half miles from the town we had to cross a river bed, and the banks were very thickly wooded on both sides with thorn bushes. Here we met two Dutch farmers with a waggon load of wood. The guide questioned them as to the. whereabouts of the Boers, and their answer seemed to be satisfactory so we moved on. We were about a mile away from the river when we saw three horsemen riding away on our right. At first we thought they were some of the Dragoons, but after looking at them through our glasses we found out that they were Boers. Our guide said he thought they were only the rearguard galloping away, so we moved off a bit to our left in the direction of a long range of kopjis.

Our officer then sent two men on at a gallop to the ridge to have a look round. One of the men had hardly reached the top when a volley came into us from a long line of bushes on our right, as well as from our rear. We were in a warm corner, and they kept it up, I can tell you. The order was to gallop for the kopji, which was not very far away, and we did go, I can tell you. Our horses must have known what was wrong for they went up the kopji just like cats. I have never seen a horse go like it before, and the bullets were whistling round our heads like fury. We could see them striking the ground all round us, it was a marvel how we escaped being hit. There were 14 of us when we reached the kopji, three of us were told offto hold the horses, the rest of the men took up the best position they could find, there was but very little cover anywhere, and we with the horses, were exposed to a hot fire all the time; we had walked into a splendid trap, volleys were coming from all sides and the enemy were creeping up closer and closer, we expected help from the town but it did not come, for the main body of the Boers attacked our relief party and they could not get out to us, five of them were killed and twenty wounded. The Boers kept up a hot fire at us all the time and the bullets were dropping round us as we held the horses, one horse was shot, and we had to lay flat on the ground, I said "Good-bye to old England" as we expected to be hit every minute, several of our men were shot through their hats and had very narrow escapes.

We held the position for three hours and the enemy were quite close to us, our officer gave the order to stop firing and hoist the white flag as we were all certain to be hit if we held out much longer and our ammunition was nearly all gone, he said it was to save our lives. A lot of the men refused to do it, but at last one of them hoisted the flag and in a few minutes fifty Boers came over the kopji with their rifles pointed at each man, shouting "hands up," we threw down our arms and they soon took possession of them, theylet us keep all our clothes and overcoats and took us off to their lagaar, We had not left the kopji many minutes before shells were dropping all round it and the Boers had to take to their heels, but theykept us with them. They dragged us about with them inthe mountains for twelve days, sometimes travelling 30 miles a day, we had to walk all the time we were with them. We lived on mutton which we had to cook for ourselves by putting it into the fire. We had a rough time of it, I can tell you, we were three times under fire of our own guns and they would not let us shift. At last we got away from them, a column was close on their heels and they had to leave us behind, we have had indeed, some very narrow escapes lately. I will tell you all about my experiences with the Boers in my next letter"

The above letter was published in the Rothley-cum-Keyham Parish Magazine in May 1901.

With thanks to Terry Sheppard for this extract.