5th Dragoon Guards
Both the 4th and 5th Dragoon Guards were formed in 1685 from Troops of Horse raised by James II to defend London from the invasion. The Regiments, originally known as, Arran’s Horse and Shrewsbury’s Horse, took their names from their Commanding Officers, as was the custom in those times. In the event, these Regiments, together with the rest of James’s Army, refused to support him and he fled to France, abandoning the throne to William of Orange. The next year, however, still claiming the throne, he landed in Ireland. Only Carrickfergus, Londonderry and Enniskillen held out against him. The town of Enniskillen raised three Regiments from Protestants who had taken refuge there. One of these was Conyngham’s Dragoons, which became the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. On 11th June 1690, King William himself landed at Carrickfergus with a Protestant Army, which included both the 4th and 5th Dragoon Guards, and on the 1st July that year, all three Regiments fought side by side at the Battle of the Boyne. James was defeated and returned to France.
In 1720, King George I conferred the Colonelcy of the 7th Dragoon Guards on Colonel John Ligonier. His influence was profound and, during his twenty-nine year tenure, the Regiment was to reach a peak of discipline and training and acquired the nickname ‘The Black Horse’. All the while the two senior Regiments the 4th and 5th, were languishing in Ireland, clocking up a total of some one hundred and eighty years of joint service in that country. However, their moment was shortly to come. Both played a major role in Wellington’s Peninsula campaign and gained honours including Salamanca, where the 5th Dragoon Guards captured the Staff of the Drum Major of the French 66th Infantry Regiment. This Staff, is still carried today on parades, by the Senior Regimental WO2. Colonel Sir William Ponsonby, who commanded the Regiment at Salamanca was later killed whilst leading the Union Brigade charge, at Waterloo. The Inniskillings, who took part in this charge, were so praised by the Duke of Wellington, that a statue of an Inniskilling Dragoon was erected on the Wellington Memorial in Hyde Park.
In 1854, the 4th, 5th and the 6th, who had last fought together at the Boyne, rode together in the charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava. In this action, eight hundred men, commanded by General James York-Scarlett himself a past Commanding Officer of the 5th Dragoon Guards, utterly routed nearly three thousand five hundred of the Tsar’s finest Cavalry, with minimal loss to themselves. This so demoralised the Russian horsemen, that they did not dare to follow up the subsequent disaster to the Light Brigade later that same day.
During the Boer War of 1899-1902, the 5th Dragoon Guards formed part of the force besieged at Ladysmith, whilst the 6th Inniskillings and the 7th ‘Black Horse’ earned their spurs in
numerous skirmishes and many long patrols over the Veldt. Two Officers serving at that time were later to achieve world fame. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, who commanded the 5th Dragoon Guards, was to put his South African experience to good use as the founder of the Boy Scout Movement. Captain LEG Oates, of the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, became a
legend of self sacrifice when, as a member of Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic Expedition of 1912, he chose to sacrifice himself rather than impede the progress of his comrades.
In great heart, the regiment left Sialkot, India, on 20th September 1899 and moved down country to Deolali. ‘D’ Squadron embarked at Bombay on the 26th and the temporary
Second-in-Command, Major Edwards, took over a regiment well trained for the type of warfare, which they soon afterwards met in South Africa. There was a great regimental spirit, too: eighty-six non-commissioned. officers and men who were due to be sent home “time expired” voluntarily extended their service as soon as it was known that the 5th Dragoon Guards were for active service.
At the outbreak of the Second Boer War in South Africa, there were very few British troops in that country. There were only two cavalry regiments, about a brigade of infantry with ancillary arms and services, and some Irregular auxiliary units, all in Natal, totalling about seven thousand fighting men, under the command of General Penn-Symonds. This ‘handful’ of troops could not be reinforced by an expedition from England until mid-November at the earliest, but it was hoped to get the Indian Contingent, approximately equal in strength to Penn-Symonds’ force, to Africa by mid-October.
For the first two months of war therefore, the Boers, thought to have a potential strength of from forty to fifty thousand, were in theory able to concentrate in superior force to the British. In fact, the lack of any effective system of organization and administration in the enemy’s forces prevented them from undertaking, any large-scale strategic enterprise. Nevertheless, by the time the Indian Contingent had arrived and a small British Expedition under command of General Sir George White had reached Ladysmith, the Boers had been able to stage an invasion of Natal. Some forty thousand strong, the commandos crossed the border in two main columns, the Transvaalers via Laing’s Nek and the Free Staters via Van Reenan’s Pass. By mid October 1899, the Boers had seized Talana Hill at Dundee. Attacking Talana on 10th October, Penn-Symonds had some initial success, at heavy cost in the face of sustained rifle fire of surprising range and accuracy but, in the end, the attack failed. Penn-Symonds was killed and his troops fell back towards Ladysmith, where Sir George White had placed himself to block the main line of the enemy’s supply, though by so doing he ran the risk of being pinned down by greatly superior numbers.
At the battle of Elandslaagte, in the late afternoon of 21 October 1899, a number of Boers had already surrendered when a high crest had been rushed by the British Infantry, but the mass of them mounted their ponies and rode northwards across the veld in order to strike the
Newcastle Road. It was now after half-past five and already dusk, but just before darkness became supreme the mass of Boer fugitives were overtaken by the 5th Dragoon Guards and 5th Lancers, who had been kept in leash for this purpose. Major Gore had placed his two
Squadrons, after he had withdrawn them out of range of the Boer gunners, within a fold of the veld, from which it was possible to observe the whole of the rear of the enemy’s position. Just as the light began to fade, about fifty Boers came down a spur of the hill, content firing a few rounds at the more exposed officers who were reconnoitring the ground. At first they came over the hill in one’s and two’s, then in considerable numbers. Major Gore passed the word for his two squadrons to advance in extended tiles, the squadron of the 5th Lancers, under Captain MPR Oakes, was on the right, the squadron of the 5th Dragoon Guards, under Captain PH. Darbyshire, on the left.
The ground to be crossed was broken and stony and on left of the line was a ravine. As the men topped the rise, which had until then
concealed them, they saw in front of them at about three hundred yards, a straggling group of mounted men moving almost leisurely away. The British cavalry had been trained for just this classic, textbook situation! Major Gore gave the order for which the men had been
straining, “Gallop!.” With levelled lances and bared sabres, the two squadrons dashed forward and rode over and through the panic-stricken burghers. As soon as the latter heard the thud of the galloping horses and the exulting cries of the troopers, they opened out and tried to save themselves by flight. With so small a start their little ponies were no match for the big-striding Walers, and the cavalry were upon them. Some tried to use their Mausers, some threw themselves on the ground whilst others knelt down imploring for mercy. For a mile and a half, the Dragoons and Lancers over-rode the flying enemy, turned, rallied and galloped back to complete the havoc and to meet such of the fugitives as had escaped the initial burst. In the second gallop little sabreing or spearing was done, and many prisoners were taken.
The men fell in and cheered madly. There was something awful in the dramatic setting, wild troopers forming with their reeking weapons bare, the little knot of prisoners, with faces blanched in fear, all herded together at the lance point. It should be said to the credit of the British troopers that, although they had mercilessly carried out the duties attendant upon a cavalry pursuit, yet, once their duty was accomplished, they showed every compassion for those who had suffered. Though drenched to the skin, many of the British Cavalry parted with their cloaks and blankets to cover the shivering limbs of the wounded, and some even shared their covering with the unwounded prisoners they were guarding. The bearing of the prisoners was the same in every case, completely cowed and almost stupefied by what they had undergone.
Little documentation is held of this charge and it was thought that the 5th Dragoon Guards were not present, but historians had failed to note that 5th Dragon Guards had lances at this time and were mistaken for two Squadrons of 5th Lancers.
As the result of this very successful engagement, quoted at the time as a model of tactical cooperation between all arms, the British forces were enable to concentrate at Ladysmith where, on 26th October, all three squadrons of the 5th Dragoon Guards were once more united. After a long, trying spell of reconnaissance and outpost duty, the regiment took part in an action, which aimed at destroying the left flank of the Boer position overlooking Ladysmith. The attack was a failure and the chief role of the cavalry was to cover the infantry retirement. During the course of the action, an officer of the regiment, Lieutenant Norwood, earned the award of the Victoria Cross for rescuing a wounded man under fire.
In the Officers’ Mess, 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, there is a painting of the incident, showing the charge at full gallop, headed by the Commanding Officer, who is firing his pistol and closely backed up by an officer with a drawn sword, followed by the front rank of the squadron with lances. Lieutenant Norwood galloped back about 300 yards through heavy fire, dismounted, and, picking up the fallen trooper, carried him out of fire on his back, at the same time leading his horse with one hand. The enemy kept up an incessant fire during the whole time that Lieutenant Norwood was carrying the man until he was quite out of range. He rejoined the 5th Dragoon Guards on mobilization in 1914, but was killed during the advance to the Aisne that year.
A few days later, there was a similar incident when Lieutenant the Honourable R L Pomeroy remained behind with a dismounted trooper and, under heavy fire took him up on his horse and brought him back. General Brocklehurst, who was in command of the cavalry after the withdrawal of General French, saw the incident and wished to recommend it for recognition; however, the matter went no farther,
“quite rightly,” as Pomeroy himself wrote in the regimental history, “for any other officer in the regiment would have acted just as I did.”
British attempts to control the situation in the Ladysmith area failed and, by the beginning of November, General White was completely hemmed in and left with no option, but to endure a siege.
The cavalry camp within the perimeter at Ladysmith was in full view of the Boer gunners, so each morning the regiments saddled up and exercised in the dark and afterwards, about first light, moved stealthily out to positions of concealment. The 5th Dragoon Guards found themselves some dead ground which they named Green Horse Valley, and here breakfasts were eaten and the normal routine of stables, orderly room and so on carried out under cover until dark, when the march back to camp was made. Shelters and ‘splinter-proofs’ were improvised, field kitchens built and, in time, the accommodation became comfortable. The supply situation was far from good, by Christmas, food and drink were running short, dried twigs and juniper leaves had replaced tobacco,.
By now the situation in Ladysmith was becoming extremely serious, and in January the rations were still further cut,* and all save seventy-five of the regiment’s horses were turned out to grass to save forage. As compensation for their loss of mobility, the squadrons were given rifles and bayonets and allotted a permanent sector of the defences.
On the arrival of Lord Roberts to take over the chief command from General Buller, the whole campaign was reorganized, and on 28th February 1900, Buller, with strong reinforcements, was at last successful in effecting the relief of Ladysmith. An attempt to pursue the retreating Boers was made next day by the one squadron, which was all that the regiment could mount, but the horses were so weak from under-feeding that they could not sustain the effort. The leading troop did succeed in getting sufficiently close to their enemy for the troop leader, Lieutenant Dunbar, to have his horse shot under him before the attempt had to be abandoned. Thus ended the siege of Ladysmith, which cost the 5th Dragoon Guards two officers and thirty-six men killed or died of sickness, enteric fever and dysentery, four officers wounded and eight invalided home.
In the northern advance from Ladysmith to the Transvaal the 5th Dragoon Guards were brigaded with the 1st Royal Dragoons and 13th Hussars under Brigadier-General
Burn-Murdoch, ensuring the security of the line of communications between the base and the field army. This task meant dispersion into small detachments and endless toil and sweat without any of the thrills of war, a severe test of discipline and keenness.
In General Buller’s final despatch of 9th November 1900, 4 officers and 3 non-commissioned officers and men of the 5th Dragoon Guards, were mentioned for gallant work while the regiment was under him. In the case of Captain Reynolds, “on 15th August with a party of 20 men of the 5th Dragoon Guards surprised and routed a commando of 400″.
The following is a menu for the Guards on Christmas Day 1899 in Ladysmith:
Potages: Julienne (tinned-kept specially for Christmas)
Roti: Rosbif a la Anglais (Trek ox)
Legumes: Pomme de terre bouilles (one for each man)
Petits Pois (one small tin)
Releves: Jambon au General Hunter (God bless the General for it).
Entrements: Plum pudding au Bulwan (no-body asking for second helping)
Dessert: Apricots, peaches (from several of the deserted houses in Ladysmith)
Vins: Eau de Klip River, Cognac de Ladysmith (one bottle), Port d’Afrique (one bottle), Rhum (commissariat 1/4 bottle)
Note the “Rosbif” was slightly spoiled as the bakery was shelled when the meat was in the oven and the cooks left abruptly.