The Gordon Highlanders was raised in 1794 by the 4th Duke of Gordon as a Regiment of Highland Foot (Infantry). Originally designated the 100th Regiment of Foot and later the 92nd, the Regiment was officially named “The Gordon Highlanders” in 1881. The early recruitment campaign was assisted by the 4th Duke’s wife, the Duchess of Gordon (Duchess Jean). The Duchess is said to have offered a kiss as an incentive to join her husband’s Regiment.
The expanding British Empire saw the Gordons serve on the frontiers of India, Egypt, Sudan and South Africa. 1897 would see one of their most celebrated achievements, the stunning victory at Dargai on India’s North-West Frontier.
In 1881, the 75th Regiment of Foot, with its own splendid record of war service in India, was amalgamated with the Gordons, which had now established a permanent presence in Aberdeen. At the same time, the development of local volunteer and militia units into the Territorial Army gave the Regiment a truly local character.
In its two hundred years of history, The Gordon Highlanders fought in almost every major campaign of the British Army around the world, from the Napoleonic Wars, Afghanistan, South Africa, the First and Second World Wars through to Malaya, Northern Ireland and United Nations operations in Bosnia.
After amalgamation in 1994 and Army reforms in 2006, The Gordon Highlanders live on through their modern descendants: The Highlanders, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.
There is a strong and lasting connection with The Cape Town Highlanders in South Africa, the link going back to 1932. The association continues to the present day through The Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen.
In the early hours of 10 October 1899, with rain lashing down on their open railway trucks, 2nd Battalion The Gordon Highlanders finally arrived at Ladysmith station, having voyaged by troopship from India. At their head was Lieutenant-Colonel WH Dick-Cunyngham, winner of the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery in Afghanistan 20 years before. The Gordons were in familiar company. In overall command of the forces at Ladysmith was Lieutenant-General Sir George White, a legendary Gordon Highlander who had also won a Victoria Cross with the Regiment in Afghanistan, and who Dick-Cunyngham had served under during that war. White’s deputy, and Brigade Commander, was Colonel Ian Hamilton, who had served with distinction as a Gordon Highlander in the First South African War at the Battle of Majuba in 1881.
The day after the arrival of 2nd Battalion at Ladysmith, war broke out as Boer forces invaded the Cape and Natal. Initial British success at the Battle of Elandslaagte on 21 October buoyed hopes that the war would be won quickly. However, just 9 days later White found himself surrounded and cut off by the enemy.
Colonel Ian Hamilton’s Brigade under which the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders served was given the southern sector of the Ladysmith perimeter to defend. At the beginning of December 1899 three Gordon companies were detailed as a local reserve and formed a camp at ‘Fly Kraal’ on the scrub-covered flat under the slope of ‘Caesars Camp’. Although safe from Boer shelling it was not well liked due to the incessant plague of flies that gave the camp its name. The rest of the Battalion, including the Gordons headquarters companies were given a permanent home on the sheltered slope of ‘Gordons Kop’ at the south-west angle of the town, near the ‘iron bridge’ across the river.
Daily shelling, an extreme shortage of food, numerous encounters with Boer forces and continuous risk of disease constantly threatened to overwhelm the town. Despite this, an air of surreal normality was maintained. To keep up morale within the garrison, many sporting events were organized such as football, cricket, gymkhana and oxen versus mule races. Whilst these activities took place, the Boers would watch the besieged troops through binoculars from their vantage points on the hills above.
On 10 November 1899, on the Gordons parade ground, a football match was being played between the Gordons and a team from the Natal regiments. Two minutes into the game the Boers fired a 90 lb shell at the players from Long Tom on Umbulwane. It passed closely over the heads of the players and exploded on the side of the ground. “There came a burst of thunder, the spectators, Oh where were they?” The players continued the game and the Boers, whether in the interest of sport has not yet been ascertained, refrained from firing another shell. Under cover of the shell the Gordons ‘sneaked’ a goal to which the natal team objected. However the Gordons sent a message to the English Football Association crying ‘foul’ because such an action was not part of the rules of the game. There is no record of a reply!
On 6 January 1900 the fiercest engagement of the siege took place. In the dead of night, 2000 Boers stormed British positions at ‘Caesars Camp’ and ‘Wagon Hill’. The Boer leaders, frustrated by the slow progress of events, had decided to attempt to force the issue with an all out attack. Colonel Ian Hamilton woke with the noise of Boer artillery and realizing the seriousness of the situation, sent a reserve of Gordon Highlanders into the action, one company to ‘Caesars Camp’ and another to ‘Wagon Hill’, to support fellow Gordons who were already in the thick of battle. He also called for the General Reserve from the town.
After fierce fighting that lasted all day in the blistering sun, including several bayonet charges, the British stabilized their front and pushed the Boers off the two strong points. The day was particularly costly for the Boers who would never again attempt to take Ladysmith by force.
It was a costly defence for the Gordons though. Lieutenant-Colonel Dick-Cunyngham VC, wounded at Elandslaagte, was among the 18 officers and men killed or died of wounds from 2nd Battalion.
Among the 45 Gordon Highlander wounded was Captain Walter W MacGregor, in command of F Company in front of ‘Wagon Hill’ when the Boers attacked. He kept a detailed diary of his experiences, the original of which is held in The Gordon Highlanders Museum archives.
‘Started with Working party at 1am to go to Wagon Hill to mount Naval guns had been working about 10 minutes when Boers started to attack, shooting began about 2.30am. All rushed to get their arms and all lights were put out, one of the Imperial Light Horse rushed up and asked us to come and help them as there were a lot of Boers in front…We rushed over to that hill and one guide showed us where to go and said line the ridge to the left – I was leading and was shot at once as well as some men close behind me, the remaining retired and got behind a ridge a bit higher up the hill. MacNaughten and 5 or 6 others got in a little sangar on the right of where I was shot and were surrounded by the Boers and taken prisoner. I lay where I was listening to the Boers talking and wishing for daylight, as I thought that as soon as it was daylight our group would advance and drive them away with the bayonet, but there was no such luck and after waiting for about an hour after daylight between our own and the Boer lines which made me think I should be shot any minute. I crawled down into the Boer lines about 5.30am. I was very glad to get under cover there, more specifically, from our own bullets – The Boers treated me with the greatest kindness and bandaged my wound, and I sat under cover in their firing line for sometime – I asked a boy, quite a young chap for a bit of bread and he gave me some at once, but I gave him 2/6 for it. Soon after that a man came up and asked me for my revolver, I told him I haven’t got one (which was true) but gave him 20 cartridges and he wanted the pouches and belt – I managed to keep my glasses though as they stuck behind my coat. Another man wanted my watch which after some hesitation I was obliged to give him – but I said I thought it rather hard luck, as I couldn’t defend myself and so after talking with another man he gave it back to me and said I had better put it away where no one would see it’.
Later in the day, 50 yards back from the firing line and in the middle of a heavy rainstorm he goes on to describe his liberation.
‘About this time the fire grew very hot and as I heard afterwards, our people charged – at any rate the Boers came flying back down the hill and left us lying where we were…The Boers – who were all Free Staters – were very kind to me all day, and we talked a good deal; they hate the war although they seem to have no intention of giving in without a fight. They asked me why we had made war on them’.
The siege was broken after 118 days on 28 February 1900, with General Sir Redvers Buller’s relief force entering Ladysmith in triumph on 3 March. The sound of Gordon Highlander bagpipes filled the air as Sir George White declared the immortal line, “I thank God we kept the flag flying.”
Once the siege was lifted 2nd Battalion joined 4th Division, which was part of the Natal Field Force. They were subsequently involved in operations to secure Natal, taking part in actions at Witkoppies and Rooi Koppies before fighting at Belfast, Lydenburg and Paardeplatts, which more or less brought the conventional fighting to an end. At the end of the war in 1902 2nd Battalion returned to India, from where they had departed three years previously.
Sir George White was invalided home to Britain after Ladysmith. On 9th March 1900, in frail health, he bade an emotional farewell to the Gordon Highlanders he had commanded during the siege.
“Men of the Gordon Highlanders, I have to leave you. I cannot take you with me, you are wanted here. But I know that you will do as you have always done – act as Gordon Highlanders.” White was later promoted to Field Marshal. He died in 1912, having served as Governor of Gibraltar and Governor of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, London.
When the Gordon Highlanders entered the Transvaal after the siege of Ladysmith they wore khaki aprons designed to cover the dark coloured kilts and bright Sporran that had been blamed for high stomach casualty figures within Highland regiments at the start of the war.
My thanks to Jesper Ericson of the Gordon Highlanders museum.
See www.angloboerwar.com for an in depth look at the regiment