Text from "Naval Brigades in the South African War"
Accounts by various officers edited by Surgeon Thomas Tendron Jeans
"Despite the fact that so much has already been written on the subject, I feel assured that this little
contribution to the history of the struggle in South Africa needs neither explanation nor excuse. It is
the story of how, at a time when their comrades of the land service were in dire need of help, British seamen hastened to place their ships' guns on improvised carriages, took them ashore, and in the nick of time enabled our military forces to cope on equal terms with the Boer artillery.
Many years will elapse before we can forget the surprise and dismay occasioned at home when, after the apparent successes of Talana Hill and Elandslaagte, it became known that the enemy had put into the field heavy guns of high velocity, large calibre, and long range, brought on travelling carriages from the forts at Pretoria and Johannesburg. These guns inevitably outranged and overmatched the British field artillery, rendering position after position untenable, until, within three weeks of the outbreak of the war, Ladysmith itself was in danger from the heavy pieces of ordnance mounted on the encircling hills. Then came the delight and the immediate sense of relief when the news was received of the dramatic and unexpected appearance of the naval guns in the beleaguered town. To the remarkable prescience and ingenuity of Capt. Percy Scott, the admirable energy and promptitude of Capt. the Hon. Hedworth Lambton, and the zeal and resourcefulness of all the officers and men associated with them, it was due that the Naval Brigade, with guns of equal power to those possessed by the Boers, was able to reach the front before the investment was complete, or, as Sir George White said, ' when it became evident that I was not strong enough to meet the enemy in the open field.'
Outside Ladysmith, both during and after the siege, in the Cape Colony and in the hostile States
the entry of naval detachments upon the field of action was not attended by circumstances such as
had made the appearance of HMS Powerful's ' brigade so significant and dramatically effective But the part played was quite as important, the work performed was fully as arduous, and the difficulties surmounted demanded an equal amount of smartness, endurance and courage.
Major A. E. Marchant and Captain W. T. C. Jones DSO, both of the Royal Marines take up the story:
On October 12th commandoes* poured across the Natal frontier, and, on the other side, Boers derailed and destroyed an armoured train patrolling the line south of Mafeking Troops were but few in number; some were hurried up to Kimberley just in time, and with the enemy arrogantly proclaiming their determination to drive every Britisher into the sea by Christmas time, the Navy was asking to be allowed to furnish a brigade to stem the tide of invasion. On the I3th orders came down to Simonstown for two 12-ponnders with full field guns' crews of bluejackets to be held in readiness to proceed to Cape Town. The Royal Marines began to think that they were to be left out, but happily this was not to be^ for on the following day the orders were amended^ and as many marines as could be spared were to form the gun escort of the first Naval Brigade.
Then commenced a general bustle all round. Time was short and many things had yet to be done.
The two senior officers detailed to land — one in command of the whole Brigade and the other of the Marines — were ordered by the G.O.C. to attend at Cape Town, to arrange details and receive confidential instructions. Khaki clothing, not then supplied to the Navy, was obtained from the Ordnance Stores at Cape Town, piled into and on top of cabs, hurried to the station and sent down by rail to Simonstown. The officers met to discuss final matters and arrange personal business, khaki was issued, also military great coats, to the bluejackets, all equipment was got ready, and marines' belts, pouches, and rifle slings were scrubbed and dyed a colour meant to be
khaki, but not quite, with permanganate of potash. Some stout men, for whom no khaki could be
found large enough, tried the experiment of dyeing their white clothing a coffee colour. The result may best be left to imagination. However, everything eventually was arranged and on October 20 the Naval Brigade landed from HMS Doris (flag), HMS Monarch (guardship), HMS Powerful (from China, homeward bound), and HMS Terrible (to China, outward bound). There was tremendous enthusiasm in the fleet. All hands on board manned and cheered ship, and a hearty reply was given from every boat as it pulled ashore laden with its khaki-clad bluejackets, stokers, and marines. Inside the dockyard the Brigade was formed up for inspection by the Rear- Admiral Commanding the Station, who made a short address, and specially confided the care of the guns to the marines, saying, ' The corps must prevent them at all hazards from being captured. With such an escort, I rest assured that if the guns don't come back, no bluejackets or marines will come back either.'
There were many dismal faces among those left behind, nothing but cheerful smiles on the faces of
those chosen as they formed 'fours' and wheeled through the dockyard gates on their way to the
The Brigade was composed as follows : Commander Ethelston of H.M.S. 'Powerful' in
command. Major Plumbe, E.M.L.I., of H.M.S. 'Doris' 2nd in command.
9 Naval officers.
7 Marine officers.
290 N.C.O.'s and men of the Royal Marines.
The guns were two 12-pounder 8-cwt. guns on
ordinary field mountings.
*The idea of small groups of specialist fighters or Commandoes came from the Boers who invented this word to describe their special forces units.