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The Mounted Infantry

"I used to be in the Yorkshires once (Sussex, Lincolns, and Rifles once), Hampshires, Glosters and Scottish once! But now I am M.I." (1)

MI, or Mounted Infantry, was an Arm of the Service which steadily grew in importance after 1880 and achieved its greatest size and effectiveness in the South African War. A mounted infantryman, or rifleman, was a soldier, usually an infantryman but sometimes a cavalryman and even, briefly, a gunner, who was armed with infantry weapons but who rode, rather than marched, usually on a horse. However, unlike the cavalryman's mount, which was an extension of the man and therefore of his weapons, the mounted infantryman's was merely a conveyance to afford him greater mobility and speed of manoeuvre, his weapons still being used on foot.

Some MI had been used since the 1830s chiefly, but not entirely, in African campaigns and in a small way, on a locally organised basis. The greater use of both camel mounted and horsed MI in the Sudan campaigns of 1884-85, and in Burma, had so demonstrated its tactical possibilities, particularly its advantages over conventional cavalry and infantry against lightly equipped, fast-moving enemies, that from 1888 MI became an officially recognised fighting element of the Army at home and abroad. It was not, however, to have any permanently organised units.

Instead two MI schools, one at Aldershot, the other in Ireland, were set up to train detachments of one officer and 32 men from battalions at home on 2 x/i month courses, these courses were continuous. On completion of a course the trained detachments would return to normal duties in their battalions, but would practise their MI role periodically. In command at Aldershot was Major Edward Hutton of the 60th Rifles whom a brother officer called the "Father of the Mounted Infantry" (2) and who will be encountered later. Similar schools were organised for battalions abroad. Fixed establishments for MI companies were promulgated, each having four detachments known as sections, each of which was to be manned by a different battalion, within each section men were grouped in permanent sub¬sections of four-three riflemen and one horse-holder. A number of companies could be grouped to form an MI battalion, complete with a machine-gun section, An MI training manual was issued to ensure uniformity. This, then, was the system that remained in force until 1899: no permanent MI units, but a pool in battalions of trained MI who could be mobilised into MI companies as and when a need arose. Even so such a modest and inexpensive scheme attracted criticism from those unconvinced by the need for MI, particularly from the powerful Cavalry, who saw it as a threat to their future rather than, as intended, the formation of a rifle-armed body for their own close support.

Any antipathy to MI was shortsighted because, when it came to war with the Boers in late 1899, it should have been foreseen that the bulk of their forces would consist of mounted riflemen. Yet by far the greatest proportion of reinforcements sent to South Africa were ordinary infantry battalions with supporting field artillery. Even when the governments of Canada, Australia and New Zealand offered troops - of which many were trained as mounted riflemen -they were told that infantry would be preferable. Fourteen cavalry regiments were in or reached South Africa in 1899, but they were mainly trained for shock action with sword and lance. The only MI available in the early weeks were the detachments of the seven and a half garrison battalions already in the country and local South African units, either of the semi-permanent type, like the Natal Carbineers, or those hurriedly raised, like Thorneycroft's and Bethune's MI and others variously designated Light Horse or Mounted Rifles.

Before the end of the year these were joined by the eight newly-mobilised MI companies from England. By late November two of these had joined the Cavalry Division under French's command in Cape Colony, where they failed to impress his chief staff officer, the cavalryman and future field-marshal, Major Douglas Haig, who found his strong prejudice against MI reinforced by, as he saw it, their ignorance of reconnaissance work and their inability to ride. He also had to admit that some of the Regular Cavalry were not coping well with this new kind of warfare. For example, in the war's first engagement at Talana Hill, the Commanding Officer and part of his 18th Hussars had been captured, due largely to the inexperienced colonel's refusal to heed the advice of a squadron leader with much experience of dismounted action -Major Percy Marling, VC, who as a former 60th Rifleman had commanded MI in the Sudan in 1884-85. (3)

With the Ladysmith relief force in Natal was the Earl of Dundonald's Mounted Brigade which included the South African Light Horse, Thorneycroft's and Bethune's MI, and the MI Composite Regiment, made up of Regular MI from the 2nd 60th Rifles and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers with detachments of the Imperial Light Horse and Natal Carbineers. This regiment was commanded, not by an experienced MI officer, but by Hubert Gough of the 16th Lancers (4). In 1901, at Blood River Poort, he was to commit his MI to a cavalry charge, firing their rifles from the saddle, only to be ambushed by an unseen body of Boers, also firing from the saddle, who inflicted heavy casualties, Gough himself and over 200 men being taken prisoner; hardly the most productive use of, by then, a seasoned MI unit.

Also serving under Dundonald - and as much admired by him as disliked by Gough was another MI veteran of the Sudan campaigns, "Bimbash" Stewart of the Gordon Highlanders, now in command of three MI companies. Later in the war Stewart commanded the Johannesburg Mounted Rifles - the JMRs, or "Jews, Mostly Russian" - whom Stewart's old friend, Percy Marling, considered were "the biggest lot of horse thieves in the country and their CO was as bad, if not worse, than any of them!" (5)

It was on the Western Front in early 1900, after Lord Roberts, a firm believer in the value of MI, had assumed overall command of operations, that the need for far more MI was appreciated. First, the Regular MI was increased by ordering every battalion to provide two officers and 47 men. By this means eight MI battalions, each just over 400 strong, were raised. Additional to these were sundry units of varying size of South African, Australian, New Zealand, and later Canadian MI, plus the recently-arrived MI Company of the City of London Imperial Volunteers (CIV). The whole made a division's worth of MI to support French's Cavalry Division.

However - and this particularly applies to the Regular MI- while it was one thing to assemble sufficient men, it was a different matter to find enough MI-trained officers, to muster enough horses, to work out and teach tactical drills, and indeed to train all the men to ride and look after their horses; furthermore it all had to be done within three weeks or so before Roberts' advance began. It is not surprising there were many mistakes, mishaps and delays, with all ranks virtually having to learn their trade as they went along, and often by bitter experience. This could be especially bitter when a superior commander ignored or failed to appreciate what MI were designed for. (6)

After the Battle of Paardeberg, and before the advance to Bloemfontein and on to Pretoria, the MI were reorganised into four brigades, each of two Regular battalions and three-four squadrons of Colonials. The brigade commanders included the aforementioned Hutton, E.A. Alderson of the Royal West Kents, who had served in the MI Camel Regiment in the Nile Expedition and commanded an MI battalion in the Mashonaland Rebellion in 1896, and another officer of the MI Camel Regiment - C.G. Martyr of the DCLI. These brigades were not grouped into a division, but during the advance either acted independently, or were attached to the Cavalry Division under French, who shared Haig's denigrating views of MI. Roberts, learning of French's attitude, removed all MI from his command and placed them under Hutton, now promoted major-general. He soon clashed with French, but soon afterwards his MI put the cavalry in its place by cutting off and surrounding a sizeable Boer force in that classic cavalry role - pursuit of a beaten enemy; in this case beaten and pursued by the MI because two cavalry brigades were too slow in getting started. (7)

This was in May 1900, and by now the MI had surmounted its earlier difficulties. Indeed in March it had been Alderson's MI and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles who, by their covering action, had helped save the guns of Q Battery RHA at Sannah's Post when Broadwood, a cavalry commander, had been surprised by De Wet. After the fall of Pretoria, when the best efforts of cavalry and infantry had failed at Diamond Hill, it was the 6th Regular MI and the New South Wales Mounted Rifles who found the key to the Boer position and opened its door. The 6th MI, one of the best of the Regular battalions, was commanded by Beauvoir de Lisle of the Durham Light Infantry, a noted equestrian and polo player, who had had MI experience on the Egyptian frontier in late 1885. (8)

By mid-1900 the MI had fully learned its trade and more than earned its place, regardless of what French and Haig might think of them. By that time, and the start of the guerilla war, an entirely new force of MI was beginning to join the Regular and Colonial units. This was the Imperial Yeomanry, recruited from the Yeomanry Cavalry and civilian volunteers for a year's service or the duration of the war. The first contingent, nearly 11,000 strong, provided twenty four-company battalions, each with a machine-gun section. In 1901 a second contingent of seventeen battalions was sent out. The Yeomanry Cavalry in peacetime was of course the mounted Arm of the Volunteer Force (9), and as such were organised, armed and trained like Regular Cavalry. However the Imperial Yeomanry was to be "equipped as mounted infantry, be able to shoot as well as possible, and ride decently".(10) Many of the men were of a higher calibre than the average Regular recruit (before he was trained), but they had little or no MI training before they reached South Africa, and the efficient staffing of these newly-formed battalions' headquarters proved a problem.

Initially the Imperial Yeomen were recruited through the counties' Yeomanry headquarters so that many came from rural areas, but there were also townsmen from the cities and some independent units raised by private individuals. As might be expected, the standard of military proficiency, once in the field, varied considerably, particularly in some of the independent units, many of whose members had no previous soldiering experience. One of the best of the latter was the 19th Battalion or Paget's Horse, sometimes the "Piccadilly Heroes" or even "Perfectly Harmless"; this had been raised, chiefly in London, from "young men of good social position and public school education" (11). This battalion proved itself in the Western Transvaal in 1901. Less fortunate was the 13th Battalion or Duke of Cambridge's Own, which surrendered at Lindley in 1900. Whatever the Imperial Yeomanry's shortcomings, the major-general in overall charge of their training and administration, the cavalryman J.P. Brabazon, pronounced the 35,000 Yeomen to be "the bone and the blood, the sinew and intelligence of the country" and, as irregulars, excellent material to fight the Boers who were also irregulars. (12)

With the change-over to guerilla warfare, the by now seasoned MI brigades were broken up, as were the cavalry brigades, and their components allotted to the various mounted columns formed to hunt down the commandos. The Regular MI, reinforced by drafts from the Militia and Volunteers, eventually totalled 28 battalions. As the new kind of war rendered much of the artillery redundant, 1500 gunners were converted into the RHA and RA Mounted Rifles. Mounted Infantry were now the fighting Arm and it was they who scored most of the successes over the elusive Boers. It was Regular MI, under Colonel Le Gallais of the 8th Hussars, who surprised and captured over 100 commandos with six guns at Bothaville, only just failing to take the most elusive of them all, Christian De-Wet.

If the guns of the artillery were becoming redundant, so too were the swords, lances and carbines of the cavalry. From October 1900 Kitchener ordered - much to Haig's disgust - that henceforth all cavalrymen were to be armed solely with the infantry rifle. As Lord Anglesey has written, "the Cavalry were now nearly indistinguishable from the Mounted Infantry".(13) And so it remained until the end of the war.

"They used to talk about Lancers once, Hussars, Dragoons and Lancers once, 'Eltnets and pistols and carbines once, But now we are M.I."

Notes

1. Rudyard Kipling, M.I. (Mounted Infantry of the Line) (1901)

2. Colonel Sir Percival Marling, Bt., VC, Rifleman and Hussar (1931), p. 123.

3. Marling had transferred to the 18th Hussars on promotion in 1887.

4. In 1918 commander of the Fifth Army during the March retreat.

5. Marling, op. cit, p.293.

6. See SOTQ no.48, Kitchener and Hannay's MI at Paardeberg.

7. See Lord Anglesey, History of the British Cavalry, 1816-1919: Vol 4: 1899-1913 (1986), pp. 172-173.

8. Alder son and de Lisle both achieved general's rank in the Great War.

9. Forerunners of the Territorial Army.

10. Buller to War Office, 16 Dec 1899, quoted Anglesey, op. cit.,p.88.

11. Trooper Rose-Innes, quoted lbid.,p.93.

12. Quoted Ibid, p.91. The 35,000 total included a third contingent which arrived after the fighting ended. For an account of the war through the eyes of an officer of the 6th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry, see Clearly My Duty: Jack Gilmour's Letters from the Boer War, ed. Patrick Mileham (1996). (Reviewed SOTQ No.91)

13. Anglesey, op.cit., p.236. After the war there was much controversy over the future of the two mounted Arms. By 1914 the Cavalry had won the argument and the Mounted Infantry had ceased to exist. Nevertheless by then every cavalryman was armed with the infantry rifle, in addition to his 'arme blanche', and was trained in dismounted action.

Reproduced from 'Soldiers of the Queen', issue 99, December 1999

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