It is common to think of the high status Victorian officer as a snob who cared little for his men, yet Arnold Allan Cecil Keppel, the 6th Earl of Albemarle and lieutenant colonel commanding the Infantry Battalion City of London Volunteers challenged this popular stereotype. While he, being the product of an imposed class system, obviously had his fair share of prejudices and access to privileges that many men below would have lacked, his letters and accounts while stationed in South Africa present a down to earth individual who often displayed great compassion for the officers and men around him, all of which came from a large variety of backgrounds and professions.
In mid-January, not long after the disaster that was known thereafter as ‘black week’, when the British forces faced three devastating defeats in a short period of time, Albemarle and his men made their way by sea to South Africa. The troopers as laid down by army regulations consisted of young men who were ‘first class shots’, had passed medical examination and were primarily single. The journey was relatively easy-going for the soldiers, despite the high rates of sea sickness as Albemarle ensured their morale remained high, usually by means of music.
Becoming bored with his fellow passengers, Albemarle must have been relieved when he and his battalion finally planted their feet upon South African soil. Exhausted from the long journey he had lunch with many aristocratic and military associates at a hotel in Cape Town. When he returned to his military duties the Earl was happy to find out that the ‘men are very happy and well, and look very different from the pale faced people you saw in London’. Eventually an order came in for half a battalion to leave Cape Town and by the end of February, around 330 men had reached Orange River Station. The train he later returned on was full of refugees from the Siege of Kimberly which consisted of 140 wounded and 199 prisoners. A ‘well-dressed lady’ seated next to him described her experiences and told him sombrely that mortality rates among children was high due to a lack of milk. Attached in his diary is also a copy of a memo found on a Boer prisoner from the Free State region. The situation for the Boers seems generally dire when looking at this one letter. Despite a mention of capturing a British patrol, the prisoner admits to ‘having utterly failed to drive the British back at any one point’. The writer of the memo was hopeful that General Cronje would evade capture despite being surrounded, ‘by God’s grace he thinks he will get out’, but this was not to be, Cronje unconditionally surrendered shortly afterwards and a large number of Boers were taken prisoner.
Albemarle received a telegram at the end of February informing him that a company of his mounted infantry would be escorting the recently captured Cronje. He stated, ‘I should rather like to see the rascal. We owe him something’. The earl then states that the staff (quite correctly) over-estimated the strength of the enemy, ‘They have always fought behind rocks, and have been so mobile, that this may have been the case’. The Boers being of a farming society were familiar with the land and were able to use the environment to their advantage. It is no wonder that they confused and caused the British army so much grief in the earlier stages of the conflict.
Later the earl met Lord Kitchener, expressing ‘earnest desire’ to be sent to the front but was politely refused as Albemarle’s forces were already doing good work guarding the Orange River district. Before going back to the Orange River Albemarle and company took the opportunity to travel across the battlefield of Belmont, one of Methuen’s more successful endeavours, and took the path of the Scots Guards in their attack, ‘You could hardly believe that any troops could prevail against such a position, and certainly I am convinced that none in the world could have done it but British’. Reaching the crest of the hill, the group spotted the two ridges taken by Methuen’s troops. Albemarle stated, ‘I cannot say that the air on the top of the hill was very pure’. The morbid cause of this was soon discovered as around them, a boot or a hand could often be seen sticking out of the ground due to the difficultly in covering the ground to bury the dead. In late March Albemarle made his way to the Modder River and the Magersfontein battlefield. Walking across large boulders and stones ridden with bullet holes he found ‘the usual wire entanglements’ where according to sensationalist stories, the Highlanders were hanging by their kilts. In reality only one man met such a fate. Likely inspired by what he saw, he again asked military authorities to take part in direct action against the Boers but was still out of luck.
Enviously Albemarle stated, ‘Personally I have not yet seen an armed Boer, but we live in hopes of doing so before long’. In mid-April the battalion marched in the direction of Bloemfontein with around 1000 soldiers and 2000 horses and mules. Albemarle reported that the men were ‘very tired’ yet were optimistic and would get fitter as they proceeded. However the terrain was harsh and the mule wagons became hopelessly stuck, as a result 200 men had to man the drag ropes, to make matters worse the rain came down in torrents and the whole incident caused a 2 hour delay. ‘Ow d’yer like the army now?’ a ‘waggy’ Tommy called out to a bewildered Albemarle. As the troops settled down they became uncomfortable due to the cold nights and unrelenting rain. Despite this however they looked forward to reaching Bloemfontein and Albemarle hoped that he and his men would make a good impression on the famous Lord Roberts when they were to arrive.
Compiled by Rebecca Hanley, NRO Research Blogger