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The Volunteer Service Companies

The British Empire was plunged into crisis as the 19th century drew to a close. In December 1899 in what was dubbed 'Black Week' the Boers inflicted three reverses on Britain's regular troops at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. The Government in London found itself faced with both a manpower problem and a political crisis and there was growing public pressure for volunteers to be allowed to fight.

The auxiliary forces had been asking to send men to South Africa since before the war began but all such requests had been rejected. However even before Black Week reached its climax at Colenso, attitudes towards using non-regular troops were beginning to change. Two days after Magersfontein, the Marquess of Lansdowne, Secretary of State for War, held a meeting with Lord Wolseley, the Commander in Chief Lansdowne asked whether the yeomanry and volunteers should be offered a role in the war and Wolseley supported their use and quickly produced a plan to enlist 1,000 yeomanry and 6,000 men from the Volunteer Force. {yootooltip title=[ The next day the Army Board suggested that two companies of volunteers should be raised for every English, Scottish and Welsh line battalion serving in South Africa, one to serve alongside the regulars and the second to be held in reserve(1).

Wolseley's yeomanry proposals were quickly overtaken by the scheme to raise the Imperial Yeomanry which, together with the City Imperial Volunteers, captured the imagination of politicians, the press and the public, and only the Volunteer Service Companies survived from the Commander in Chief's scheme. It was decided to raise a company of 116 all ranks from affiliated Volunteer Force battalions to serve alongside each regular battalion in South Africa, although many took slightly more than the officially allocated number. The selection of the officers and the composition of the companies were controlled by Regimental District commanders in Britain and once in South Africa the volunteers became an integral part of the regular battalions. In all about 9,000 men embarked with the companies in early 1900. {yootooltip title=[The War Office also decreed that "waiting companies" should be recruited to remain at home until they were required in South Africa but these proved unpopular, only 2,983 men enlisting(2).

One of the problems with the scheme was that it was inflexible. In some urban areas with a large number of volunteer units, the Service Companies were hopelessly oversubscribed and Godfrey Smith, who joined the Volunteer Service Company of the 2nd Scottish Rifles in Glasgow, wrote that {yootooltip title=["every drill hall was inundated with names of willing aspirants for the Army" (3). By comparison a few companies, mostly from rural areas, went out under strength.

The social make-up of the companies which went to South Africa mainly reflected the dominance of the lower middle class and skilled working class in the Volunteer Force. These citizen soldiers found themselves entering a strange new world very different from the easy familiarity of Volunteer Force camps. Before they left, the men were feted at dinners and municipal ceremonies throughout the country and given gifts ranging from pipes, purses and compasses to commemorative cards and scrolls while their departure was accompanied by scenes of frantic popular enthusiasm.

The first of the 66 Volunteer Service Companies landed in South Africa on 5th March 1900 but while some languished on quiet fronts and others did not join their parent battalions for months, the Green Howards soon found themselves in action. They joined Roberts's central column during the advance on the Transvaal capital, Pretoria, and one of them, Sergeant Charles Mackenzie, discovered that shell fire was not as terrifying as he had expected. He wrote: {yootooltip title=["Contrary to my expectations, I had no feeling of fear exactly, a quickened beating of the heart, some excitement, wondering where the next shell would fall, and what people at home at that particular moment were doing." (4). The volunteers serving with the 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment also came under fire for the first time just outside Pretoria in June, and Harold Bryant found that the reality of battle bore no relation to the illustrations in the British press which "showed the regiment dashing up with flashing bayonets led by their officers with drawn swords."The officers no longer carried swords and the company "just climbed up" the kopje they were ordered to take after a furious exchange of fire. On the Natal front two men of the Dorset Regiment Volunteer Service Company won the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Colour

Sergeant B.S. Verdon and Private A.E. Williams were awarded their medals for gallantry under fire on 11th June at Alleman's Nek, a battle which outflanked the Boers at Laing's Nek and finally cleared Natal of its invaders.

After the surrender of Pretoria on 5th June some of the Green Howards volunteers were convinced that the war was over but in the months that followed it became clear that they had been hopelessly over-optimistic as the conflict turned into a protracted guerilla campaign. Resentment over unkept promises to send them home eventually resulted in a near mutiny by eight Volunteer Service Companies at De Aar on 18th April 1901 which shocked the Army into action. {yootooltip title=[The following day these companies were told that they would leave for Cape Town on the 20th and this time the authorities were as good as their word(6).

At home the return of the volunteers sparked a revival of the patriotic fervour which had accompanied their departure and there were enthusiastic scenes as the Service Companies arrived back in then-home towns. But attempts to raise similar units later in the war were less successful, only 5,432 men embarking in 1901 and just 2,410 joining in 1902. {yootooltip title=[The reason for this was largely that they were paid only one shilling a day while men who joined the later contingents of the Imperial Yeomanry earned five times that amount(7). Public enthusiasm for the war had waned and from now on if the British Government wanted volunteers, it was going to have to pay them well.

The Volunteer Service Companies were well thought of. They had the advantage of serving with the regulars of their regiments for months in South Africa and were usually intelligent enough to absorb the best ways of the latter while avoiding the worst. Regular officers felt able to support this very cautious experiment in using the Volunteer Force overseas but would never have backed the creation of large numbers of all-Volunteer units, such as the CIV, for the war. Some leading figures in the Volunteer movement favoured recruiting entire battalions from the best men in the Force in preference to the Volunteer Service Company system. But both groups agreed that the Volunteer Force as a whole was not fit for active service overseas.

Sources:

1. War Office papers on use of volunteers and civilians, Public Record Office: WO32/7866/7887.

2. Elgin, Lord, Report of his Majesty's Commissioners appointed to Inquire into the Military Preparations and

Other Matters connected with the War in South Africa.

3. Smith, Godfrey H. With the Scottish Rifle Volunteers at the Front (1901).

4. Mackenzie, Charles, diary in Green Howards Gazette.

5. Josling, Harold. The Autobiography of a Military Great Coat (1907).

6. Josling.

7. Elgin Report.

From ‘Soldiers of the Queen', issue 99, December 1999

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