‘Hell Fire Jack’ Dartnell, Natal Police

                ‘A heavily built man of irrepressible ebullience with a smart Imperial beard’

Major General Sir John George Dartnell, KCB CMG (1838-1913)

Though their intentions had been obvious for months, the Boer invasion of Natal in October 1899 nevertheless caught the British off-balance and unprepared. Somewhere between 21,000 and 30,000 Boers pushed their way into Natal from both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, yet even the most elementary defensive measures (such as dynamiting the railway tunnels at the border) had not been actioned. Despite the ludicrous post-factual inventions which are frantically pedaled by some, the Boer invasion was certainly not ‘a defensive enterprise’[i], ‘limited in scope’ or only intended ‘to occupy suitable positions in enemy territory where the Boer forces could halt the advance of British reinforcements’.

These claims are quite simply rubbish, spouted in the increasingly desperate hope of maintaining the Apartheid-era fiction of the poor old Boers being the innocent party in a war they blatantly started.  And if you don’t believe me, then perhaps you’ll take the word of Jan Smuts – the man who formalised the republican invasion plans. Writing in 1952, Smuts’ son (and biographer) confirmed that his father told him he had ‘a careful plan drawn up’ which envisaged:

‘the Boers to strike down swiftly at Durban and the other ports upon the outbreak of hostilities, in order to prevent the British landing reinforcements. That phase completed, the mopping up of troops in the country would begin’[ii]

The border of Natal was re-drawn after the war, but in 1899 northern Natal jutted up in between the Orange Free State in the west and the Transvaal in the east – meaning it could be invaded from various directions. The imperial garrison – which had been recently strengthened, thanks to urgent appeals from the Governor, Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson – was still only about 12,000 men strong. Though Newcastle was sensibly abandoned, intense pressure from Hely-Hutchinson meant that the 8th Infantry Brigade[iii] with supporting mounted units and artillery (the whole under Major-General Penn Symons[iv]) had been pushed north to defend the coal fields at Dundee. Penn Symons’ Brigade group was thus about 45 miles north east of the main concentration of British troops, commanded by Sir George White at Ladysmith, and very much out on a limb.
Colonel Ian Hamilton[v] arrived in Natal in time to point out that civilian interference in military matters had left the Imperial forces strung out in a somewhat precarious position:

‘Everything points to the advantage of a concentration at least as far back as Ladysmith but now that a forward move has been made the Civil power say we cannot afford to pull back in view of the loss of prestige and the fear of a general Dutch rising, so we will have to make the best of it…’[vi]

Position of the 8th Brigade up at Dundee in early October 1899

Indeed, so outnumbered was the garrison, and so exposed was northern Natal, that General Buller recommended that even Ladysmith be abandoned, and that instead a defensive line should be established on the Tugela River. So much for the modern-day fantasies of there being a vast British army poised on the border, ready to swoop into the peacefully benign Boer republics. Fearing the loss of the coal fields, and ever-mindful of maintaining imperial prestige in the eyes of ‘the natives’, Buller’s eminently sensible plan was over-ruled by the Natal government.

After thoroughly looting and trashing (and re-naming) Newcastle, the Boer invaders made it to Dundee and moved onto the heights just outside the town. About 3000 burghers under General Lucas Meyer took up position on Talana and Lennox Hills, while another 2000 under General ‘Maroola’ Erasmus occupied Impati Hill[vii]. After coming under bombardment from a pair of republican 75mm guns, Penn Symons moved out of Dundee to engage Meyer’s force on the morning of the 20th of October.
Relentless republican propaganda had assured the burghers that the invasion would be a cake walk, that they would drive the cowardly ‘Rooinek’ into the sea, and – furthermore, and most ridiculously of all – that the Almighty was very much on their side. It must have come as rather rude awakening, therefore, when Penn Symons’ 15-pounders opened up on them, flaying the hill tops with a storm of shrapnel: so effective was this bombardment that hundreds of Meyer’s men – perhaps as many as a thousand – simply ran away.[viii] One especially cowardly fellow rode for 50 miles, telling everyone he met that the General Meyer’s force had been destroyed. The Tommies followed the bombardment up and, after a hard fight, drove the Boers off the heights. Erasmus decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and left Meyer’s men to their fate. Perhaps the Almighty had better things to do that day.

Though the much-maligned khakis had won the day, and shattered any arrogant contempt the Boers might have held for them, the 8th Brigade’s situation remained pretty dire. They were still stuck out on a limb, still out-numbered and in imminent danger of being cut off by the more mobile republican invaders. A force of Hussars and MI had been captured while chasing the retreating Boers in the fog and, worse still, Penn Symons had led from the front and paid the price. Shot through the stomach, he would die of his wounds on the 23rd. Replacing him in overall command, Brigadier Yule accepted that, despite the victory at Talana Hill, there was no choice but to withdraw the Brigade to Ladysmith. It was a task much easier said than done, but the loss of four battalions and three batteries was unthinkable.

The men who built the Empire upon which the sun never set were the sort to keep a stiff upper lip in all situations, however, and Yule was very lucky to have a real old warhorse of a man by his side: 61 year old Colonel John Dartnell CMG of the Natal Police. Indeed, to say ‘of the’ Natal Police is something of an understatement, for Colonel Dartnell almost was the Natal Police.

John Dartnell was born in 1837, in what is now Canada’s Ontario Province. He joined the British army in 1855, and was commissioned into the 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment[ix] as an Ensign. He was promoted to Lieutenant the following year and saw extensive service in the Indian Mutiny, including the storming of Chandaree in March 1858. A couple of weeks later, young Dartnell saw more action, this time at the storming of the Fort of Jhansi – an impressive place, extending over 15 acres with walls 30’ high. Dartnell was with the light company of his Regiment which was tasked (together with the light company of the 25th Bombay Native Infantry) with storming a section of these lofty ramparts by means of four scaling ladders.

No sooner was a ladder raised, however, than the defenders either knocked it away or else dropped rocks down on to it, smashing it. When, at last, a ladder was put in position, young Dartnell was the first man up it, scampering up and dropping down onto the ramparts amidst a horde of bewildered mutineers. They set upon him with their scimitars and he fought back gamely with his sabre before being forced to the ground. Luckily, some of his brother officers had followed him up the ladder and, shooting a couple of his assailants, quickly put the rest to flight. Dartnell had taken four sword cuts – one of which almost severed his left hand – and a fifth wound from a musket ball. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was recommended for the VC for this extreme gallantry. Though this was not granted, he received a battlefield promotion to company commander.

This picture of the Fort of Jhansi was taken in about 1900

Dartnell was invalided home, but recovered and soon rejoined his Regiment. He saw more service in the Bhotan (modern day Bhutan) Expedition of 1865. As the ADC to Major General Sir Henry Tombs, Dartnell was present at the capture of Dewanjeri.

Dartnell left the army in 1869, and moved to Natal, setting himself up as a farmer near the Umvoti River. His wife, however, found farming to be a lonely business and requested that Dartnell find alternative employment. It was this which prompted him to respond to the Governor’s appeal for a man to raise a Corps of Mounted Police in 1874, and Dartnell was duly selected. When Dartnell, with admirable honesty, informed the Governor that he knew nothing about police work, he was told that he probably knew as much as any of the other candidates, and at least he knew about discipline.

Dartnell, who would hold the rank of Major, travelled to the Cape Colony and spent some time with the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police at King William’s Town, doing his best to learn all he could about how to run a police force. He returned to Natal and immediately started to raise the Natal Mounted Police, though his initial plan to bring in men from Great Britain was rejected, and he was told to recruit locally. Dartnell would later claim his recruits were the:

‘flotsam and jetsam of the colony, and a very rough lot they proved to be, being principally old soldiers and sailors, transport riders, and social failures from home, etc. They were, however, a very fine, hardy lot of men, ready to go anywhere and do anything, and very willing and cheerful if a little troublesome in town; but in the country, away from temptation, they were excellent men who grumbled occasionally, of course, but were more inclined to laugh at and make like of discomfort and hardship’.

As raised, the Natal Mounted Police was permitted an establishment of 50 white officers, and 150 ‘natives’. Before these numbers were attained however, public pressure caused an increase in the number of white officers and a lessening in the number of blacks, meaning the establishment was altered to 115 whites, and 50 blacks – though these numbers ebbed-and-flowed with the financial health of the Colony. As is the usual story in the history of the British Empire, the force was raised on a shoe string, and it took some time before the men were equipped with suitable rifles, uniforms and horses. Nevertheless, patrols commenced and a troop of Natal Mounted Police accompanied Sir Theophilus Shepstone when he annexed the Transvaal.

The Natal Mounted Police were placed under the command of the army for the Zulu War. Though the police troopers were very keen to be involved, there was a good deal of dissatisfaction when they learned that Major Dartnell had been superseded in the command of the Police and Volunteers by Major Russell of the 12th Lancers. So strongly did the troopers of NMP object to this, that they refused to cross the border unless they were under Dartnell’s command, and offered to resign as a body. Though no doubt touched by this show of loyalty, Dartnell was a stickler for discipline and respect for the chain of command, and was having none of it. After his ‘strong remonstrance’ with his men, they agreed to serve under Major Russell, while Dartnell served on the General’s Staff.

Uniform of the Natal Mounted Police, c.1880. By the time of the Boer War, the Natal Police wore khaki uniforms

25 men of the Natal Mounted Police would be killed at the disaster at Isandlwana, but they each died a hero’s death. After the war, the editor of the Natal Mercury was prompted to write in praise of both the force, and the remarkable man who raised them:

‘We have always felt it both a pleasure and a duty to uphold the reputation of Major Dartnell’s force, and we do so the more heartily now because it has, during the eventful and trying times of the last six months, earned every right to be regarded with respect and admiration. That the men played the part of true soldiers at Isandlwana, the bodies of their slain comrades grouped round the last rallying point sadly testify. The records of the campaign show that whenever their services have been called into action they have behaved with gallantry and distinction.
This is no more than we might have expected of any corps led by Major Dartnell, than whom, we believe, a more devoted, daring, and yet discreet leader will not be found in South Africa. The trumpet of fame has not sounded their praises, but that is due to circumstances rather than to intention. Whatever the Natal Mounted Police have had to do they have done well.’[x]

Monument to the Natal Mounted Policemen who were killed at Isandlwana

Major Dartnell and his Natal Mounted Police were in action again the following year, when trouble broke out in Basutoland. The year after, 1881, saw Dartnell and his police serving in the First Boer War – indeed, such was the paucity of imperial horsemen at the start of the war, that the NMP provided the bulk of the mounted troops available. By the end of that conflict, Dartnell’s force had been on active service pretty much constantly for three years.

In 1894, it was decided to amalgamate all the various police and paramilitary forces of Natal – the Natal Mounted Police, the Borough Police, the various Local Board Police Forces, the Magisterial Native Police, Messengers and Convict Guards, the Magisterial Patrol Police and the Water Police – into the ‘Natal Police’. Despite the NMP having been more a paramilitary unit than a pure police unit, Dartnell (promoted to Colonel) was the obvious choice to serve as the Chief Commissioner of this new force, as noted by the Attorney-General in the second reading of the Police Bill:

‘A difficulty would have arisen in the matter of a Chief Commissioner of police had it not been for the loyalty to public service of Colonel Dartnell. He was told what the wishes of the Government were as regards the consolidation of the different forces. He was addressed in the capacity he is known so well to fill, that of dashing soldier, and he was asked whether, having regard to the necessities of the case, he would accept the position of Chief Commissioner. We knew perfectly well that if that distinguished officer said he would, we might rely absolutely on his exact fulfillment of the duties of the office. I am glad to say that without the least reserve of hesitation, he stated that he would comply with the wish of the Government. We found a most complete accord between Colonel Dartnell and ourselves, as regards the general control of the force. He knew, as we all know, that the peculiar character of the population here requires a police force which can move about in a strong body when necessity arises’.[xi]

Dartnell set about the establishment of the new force with dynamism and gusto, increasing the number of white officers from 200 to 300, as well as recruiting an additional 100 ‘native’ officers. Eleven police districts were established, with the number of outstations increased from 26 to 60. In the first year of the Natal Police, the number of arrests rose from 2,564 to 16,568. Indeed, so successful was the organisation which Dartnell created that it was ultimately copied in all the other colonies of South Africa. The number of officers continued to grow – in 1898, the Zululand Native Police was also merged into the Natal Police, and ten police stations were established in Zululand.

One of the notable achievements of the Natal Police was the introduction for the first time in Africa of finger-printing for forensic identification purposes. The world’s first forensic fingerprint office had been established in Calcutta, India, in 1897. Sub-Inspector (later Chief Commissioner) W J Clarke of the Natal Police’s Criminal Investigation Department was so convinced of the value of the system in law-enforcement that, in 1898, he launched it at his own expense. Eventually, the system was officially approved and, after increasing numbers of arrests and convictions, finger-printing became standard police procedure in Natal.[xii]

With a Boer invasion looming in late 1899, Dartnell had bigger fish to fry, however. He had hoped to field the Natal Police as a united field force of around 400 men, essentially operating as a Light Horse Regiment. This plan was dashed, however, and though the police were to serve bravely throughout the conflict, their knowledge of the terrain and local languages made them valuable as scouts and guides and so they were destined to serve in penny packets.
The British army certainly recognised the value of the Natal Police, and, with invasion seemingly inevitable, Colonel Dartnell was asked to join Penn Symons’ Staff at Dundee. By then Dartnell was 61-years old and was wonderfully described as being ‘a heavily built man of irrepressible ebullience and a smart imperial beard’ – just the sort of fellow the Empire needed.
Meanwhile, a troop of Natal Police, under a Sergeant Woon, were dispatched to patrol the passes on the Berg, and watch for any incursions from the Orange Free State. Another police patrol was sent to watch De Jager’s Drift, on the border with the Transvaal, while, on the 14th of October, the police detachment in Newcastle were ordered to retreat to Dundee.[xiii]

And so it was that Colonel Dartnell happened to be on hand in Dundee at that most critical juncture. The Natal Police had been held in reserve in Dundee during the Battle of Talana Hill, but Colonel Dartnell and two of his men accompanied Penn Symons throughout the action. The horse of one of the police troopers was shot from under him, and the other trooper was wounded.

‘Soon afterwards, whilst standing in an exposed glade of the wood, hurrying his men onward, General Symons was shot in the stomach. He made little of the wound for a while, telling officers and men to push ahead. Colonel Dartnell stood by him, assisting him to sit his horse, which he led off under a galling fire. But the shower of bullets that laid the General low also made havoc amongst his staff, only three officers escaping uninjured. Later on, Colonel Dartnell brought Major Hammersley, who was severely wounded, out of the ring of fire’.[xiv]

With the battle won, but with Penn Symons mortally wounded and the Brigade being in danger of being cut off, Yule turned to Dartnell for advice. As can be expected, Dartnell and his men knew the area like the backs of their hands, and the Colonel reckoned they would be able to slip away on the Helpmakaar Road, before turning towards Ladysmith. It was a circuitous route through some pretty rough terrain, but the only way to avoid the net.

Leaving the tents pitched to fool the Boers, the Brigade group moved out of Dundee at 9 PM on the 22nd of October, picking their way through the pitch black in the pouring rain. An ex-Natal Police trooper led the way, and strict orders were given to maintain silence throughout the march. The column, with guns and wagons creaking and screeching, marched throughout the night, pausing only at dawn for a rest and a feed. They pushed on, reaching Van Tonder’s Pass at midday, but it was decided not to continue until nightfall. The second night saw them led by Trooper Jock Grey of the Natal Police, who led them through the pass and down to the Waschbank River. The troops grabbed what sleep they could the following day, though a severe thunderstorm broke that afternoon, causing the river to rise by an incredible ten feet, and turning the surrounding land into a sea of mud. The march continued that night, and then another, again in the scything rain. The bedraggled, muddy, exhausted – but unbeaten – Brigade trudged into Ladysmith at breakfast time on the 26th.[xv]

Yule and Dartnell were also helped by the fact that, no doubt chastened by the lesson they had been given at Talana Hill, the federals were none too keen to approach Dundee too closely.[xvi] By the time a Boer patrol realized that the bird had flown and Erasmus’ commando had moved in to occupy the town, the 8th Brigade was ten miles away, but still a strung-out and easy target. Fortunately, the ‘innocent’, ‘noble’, ‘God-fearing’ (take your pick) Boers were far more interested in rampaging through the streets of Dundee on a drunken looting binge than in following up the retreating British troops.[xvii]

‘There was no attempt at exercising any control over the Burghers, who ran riot in the town and camp, drinking, plundering and wrecking. Even the hospital failed to escape the attention of the looters. The orgy went on all night and next morning. In order to put an end to it, Erasmus ordered all spirituous liquors in the town to be destroyed.’[xviii]

A young Deneys Reitz took part in this lawless free-for-all, gleefully recalling:

‘1,500 men were whooping through the streets and behaving in a very undisciplined manner. Officers tried to stem the rush but we were not to be denied, and we plundered shops and dwelling houses … the joy of ransacking other people’s property is hard to resist.’[xix]

Despite the modern-day fantasy that the poor old Boers were the innocent party in all this, and only ever wanted to ‘take up defensive positions, just over the border’, Dundee was re-named ‘Meyersdorp’ in honour of General Meyer – a rather strange reward for losing the battle of Talana Hill.

The route of the retreat of the 8th Brigade group, marked in red

General Sir George White, officer commanding Ladysmith, had no doubt who was responsible for the safe retirement of the 8th Brigade, and Dartnell was duly mentioned in despatches:

Col J. G. Dartnell, Chief Com. Natal Police, “rendered valuable service to the late Lieutenant Gen. Sir W. Penn-Symons and to Brig.-Gen. Yule when the Dundee column fell back on Ladysmith; his advice and experience were of the highest value, and I found him always ready and willing to help me in any way in his power.”

Dartnell was attached to General White’s Staff, and would remain in Ladysmith throughout the Siege. Around 80 of his Natal Police would also remain in the town, attached to the Volunteer Brigade under Colonel Royston. Both Royston and Dartnell urged White to let them break out of Ladysmith with the colonial light horse units before the encirclement was complete – they were well aware that mounted units would be of limited use during any siege, but were sorely needed to defend the rest of Natal. Unfortunately, by the time Sir George White agreed on the 2nd of November – the day the last train made it out of the town – it was too late. White asked Dartnell if he thought he could still make it out with the colonial horse. When Dartnell replied that he thought he could, but that they would suffer severely, Sir George thus decided against risking it.

Colonel Royston (seated centre) and Staff of the Volunteer Brigade

The Natal Police would take an active part in the Siege, including acting as a flank guard on the famous night raid launched against the Boer artillery on Gun Hill. Understanding the importance of morale, Dartnell was also one of the driving forces behind organising a children’s Christmas party on the 25th. Four trees were decorated and presents handed out by Father Christmas – in reality, the RSM of the Imperial Light Horse.

The police camp was under shell fire throughout the Siege, and Dartnell’s tent took a direct hit on the 4th of January, 1900 – everything in the tent was smashed, but luckily no one was hurt. Two days later, the Natal Police were in the thick of the fighting at Caesar’s Camp – a battle which saw the last republican attempt to storm the town defeated.

Ladysmith was finally relieved on 28 February 1900. After 4 months of siege, Colonel Dartnell was probably not quite as heavily built as he had been, but he had remained irrepressibly ebullient throughout and doubtless his imperial beard was kept smart at all times.
For his tireless work during the Siege, Dartnell was once again Mentioned in Despatches by Sir George White: 23rd March 1900: “Colonel Dartnell possesses an exceptional knowledge of the Colony and of native character. I am greatly obliged to him for the advice and assistance which he has always been ready to afford me, of which I have availed myself freely, and which I have found of the highest value”.

Dartnell continued to serve after the Relief of Ladysmith, assisting to clear the last of the invading Boers out of Natal. As the war descended into the bitter and pointless guerrilla phase, he was put in command of the Volunteer Brigade, leading them on various sweeps and drives in the Eastern Transvaal along the border with Zululand. His efforts caused him to be Mentioned in Despatches for a third time, on this occasion by Lord Roberts:

2nd April 1901: ‘Colonel Dartnell, as GOC Natal Colonists, has maintained the best traditions of the regular forces. His name stands very high in the estimation of the colonists, and he possesses the greatest influence over the natives. His advice was of much assistance in the earliest actions of the war, afterwards during the siege of Ladysmith, and finally in the general advance through the Biggarsberg to Laing’s Nek, when Natal was cleared of the enemies of the Queen. Colonel Dartnell was awarded the KCB’.

A couple of months later, with the Boer War still very much spluttering on, Dartnell was tasked with the security of a visit to Natal by the future King and Queen. The future King George V declared to Dartnell that his Natal Police were ‘the best-dressed body of khaki clad men’ he had ever seen[xx].

On the 27th of August 1901, Dartnell was given command of the newly-raised Imperial Light Horse Brigade, a unit which included elements of the Natal Police, the 1st and 2nd Imperial Light Horse and a unit of Imperial Yeomanry. The Brigade was soon in action: tasked with escorting a convoy from Harrismith to Bethlehem, the column was attacked by around 400 bitter-einders as they tried to get the wagons through the Elands River. The Imperial Light Horse were rushed forwards, and the Boers made a hasty retreat. The convoy was brought safely into Bethlehem on the 8th of September.

No sooner were Dartnell’s men in Bethlehem, however, than intelligence reports were received, confirming General Botha was planning a raid into Natal with around 1,500 bitter-einders. Dartnell thus rushed back to Natal with the 2nd Imperial Light Horse. In the event, General Botha’s ‘invasion’ fizzled out after he was defeated and badly mauled at the twin battles of Fort Prospect and Itala.

Returning to the Orange Free State, Dartnell’s Light Horse Brigade conducted dozens of night raids, pouncing on laagers and capturing bitter-einders – these were not vast hauls, but the hard-riding lighthorsemen were steadily chipping away. In December, intelligence reports confirmed that de Wet was in the area with around 1200 bitter-einders, but he was as elusive as ever. Nevertheless, Dartnell endeavoured to hunt them down, following snippets of intelligence as best he could. The game of cat-and-mouse soon got a little more interesting: a surrendered Boer revealed that de Wet was actually planning to draw the Imperial Light Horse Brigade into an ambush at the Langberg near the Tiger Kloof[xxi] Spruit – some eight miles east of Bethlehem. Forewarned being forearmed, Dartnell took the fight the de Wet[xxii].

Approx location of the action at Tiger Kloof Spruit – Bethlehem is on the extreme left of the map, Harrismith on extreme right

Lt. Colonel McKenzie, CO of the 2nd Imperial Light Horse which was operating as the advance guard, recalled the attempted ambush:

‘we suddenly saw the enemy riding out of the Tiger Kloof Spruit, where they had been concealed [in the long grass]. They formed up in line like a British regiment and charged us over the flat ground. I galloped through a long hollow in front of us, dismounted my men and lined the crest of the ridge, at the same time shouting: ‘Now, 2nd ILH, you have the chance of your lives!’ We opened fire at the approaching enemy and soon checked them. [the closest they got was 150 yards.] A few took refuge in a little stone kraal on our left front, and others swerved to our right and worked round our flank. I noticed a high ridge on my left front which commanded my position and quickly sent Captain Jack Duff with his squadron to occupy it. Only just in time, for he sent a message back that about 500 Boers [an exaggeration] were riding up to occupy the position, but on seeing him and his men and no doubt concluding that the position was strongly held, returned to the valley.’[xxiii]

It is not, perhaps, unreasonable to suggest that were de Wet worthy of the sycophantic hero-worship bestowed upon him by his latter-day admirers, then it should have occurred to him to occupy this critical high ground from the start. Nevertheless, and with the element of surprise totally lost, de Wet tried to press the attack (mainly against the 1st ILH) for another four hours. With many of his bitter-einders not keen to expose themselves to danger, however, de Wet ultimately had no choice but to break off the engagement. He later bemoaned the cowardice displayed by his men, perhaps to deflect the blame for the failure:

 ‘I saw that only one-third of my burghers were charging. The others were keeping under cover, and do what I could, I could not drive them out… Everything went wrong… when the burghers who were charging the English discovered that the greater part of their comrades had remained, they turned round and retreated… So I thought it best to retreat, swallowing my disappointment as best I could.’[xxiv]

In despatches on 8th January 1902, General Kitchener reported on the action:

‘After leaving Bethlehem on 18th  December, General Dartnell found himself opposed by a large force of Boers under De Wet who, occupying a position along the Tyger Kloof Spruit, disputed his advance, while he vigorously assailed General Dartnell’s flanks and rear-guard; sharp fighting was maintained throughout the day. Every successive attack was gallantly repulsed by the two regiments of the Light Horse, until the approach from Bethlehem of the column under Major-General B. Campbell, who had established signalling communication with General Dartnell during the progress of the fight, finally compelled the enemy about 3 p.m. to beat a hurried retreat in the direction of Langberg.’[xxv]

The ILH Brigade lost just one man killed, and 11 wounded, with a VC awarded to one of the latter, Surgeon-Captain T.J. Crean. Boer losses in the action are uncertain, though those reported by de Wet were almost certainly the usual hog wash.

This defeat of de Wet was Dartnell’s last action of the war. Tensions had been bubbling away between him and the COs of the two Imperial Light Horse Regiments of his Brigade for some time. These mainly concerned the best way to utilise their regiments, but it would also appear that Dartnell’s age was a factor – at 63 years old, he was perhaps no longer the ideal commander for a fast-moving, hard-riding column. Either way, Dartnell resigned his command on the 23rd of December 1901:

‘The effective power of the column was somewhat impaired by the strained relations existing between Dartnell and the officers in command of the Imperial Light Horse. Accustomed for some time to act independently, they seem to have given to their Brigadier less loyal support than he deserved. Dartnell who was strongly of opinion that a large column was needed for operating against De Wet, appealed to Kitchener in this sense and having been met with a refusal, resigned his command. The two regiments [of the ILH] henceforth acted independently under Briggs and McKenzie.’[xxvi]

In early 1903, Dartnell, by then a Major-General, retired from the Natal Police – the force he had created and led for almost 30 years – moving to England to see out his last few years. It was a great shame that he clashed with Briggs and McKenzie, but this seems to have been a rare aberration in a remarkable career spanning almost 50 years. It is an over-used cliché to say that an officer was loved by his men, but in the case of Dartnell it really does seem to have been the case. Though as ‘regimental as a button stick’ and blessed with indomitable bravery, Dartnell was only severe with his men when it was really required, and seems to have been viewed very much as a stern, but kindly, father figure. He was described as having ‘the courage of a lion and the heart of a woman’, and his men talked of him in glowing, perhaps even reverential, terms.[xxvii]
For years after his retirement, old troopers would tell new recruits that they would have happily followed him into Hades because of the faith they had in ‘Hell Fire Jack’ Dartnell to get them all out again.

‘Hell Fire Jack’ Dartnell with some of his officers


[i] Nasson, The War for South Africa, p. 65

[ii] Jan Christian Smuts by his son, p. 90, quoted in O’Connor, A Short Guide to the History of South Africa, 1652-1902

[iii] Commanded by Brigadier Yule, 8th Infantry Brigade comprised 1st Leicestershire Regiment, 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 1st Kings Royal Rifle Corps. In addition, Penn Symons commanded three batteries of Royal Artillery 15-pounders, the 18th Hussars, a squadron of the Natal Carbineers, a small number of Natal Police and a hastily-raised Town Guard

[iv] Major-General Sir William Penn Symons KCB (1843–1899)

[v] later General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton GCB GCMG DSO TD (1853–1947)

[vi] Hamilton, The Happy Warrior, p. 129

[vii] Meyer and Erasmus commanded men of the Bethel, Ermelo, Krugersdorp, Middelburg, Piet Retief, Utrecht, Vryheid and Wakkerstroom Kommandos

[viii] Kruger, Goodbye Dolly Gray, p. 78

[ix] The 86th were amalgamated with the 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment in 1881. Together, they formed the Royal Irish Rifles, which – in turn – was renamed the Royal Ulster Rifles in 1921

[x] Holt, The Mounted Police of Natal

[xi] Holt, The Mounted Police of Natal

[xii] Remarkably, by 1910, there were more sets of finger-prints on file with the Natal Police’s CID than there were at any similar office in the British Empire, including Scotland Yard

[xiii] Holt, The Mounted Police of Natal

[xiv] Burleigh, Chapter 2

[xv] Burleigh, Chapter 2

[xvi] Gibson, p. 42

[xvii] Selby, p. 66

[xviii] Maurice & Grant et al, The Official History of the War in South Africa 1899–1902, Vol. 1, p. 45

[xix] Reitz, p. 32

[xx] Holt, The Mounted Police of Natal

[xxi] Variously spelt: ‘Tiger Kloof’, ‘Tyger Kloof’ and ‘Tijgerkloof’, depending on the source

[xxii] Holt, The Mounted Police of Natal

[xxiii] The Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 18161919, Volume 4, p. 259

[xxiv] The Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 18161919, Volume 4, p. 260

[xxv] Smith, We Rest Here Content, Chapter 12

[xxvi] Amery, quoted in We Rest Here Content, Chapter 12

[xxvii] Holt, The Mounted Police of Natal


  • Paul Posted September 8, 2019 4:57 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this, as my great grandfather served under Dartnell in the 2nd ILH, and was present at Tygerkloofspruit. Excellent article!

    • Bulldog Posted September 8, 2019 5:29 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, and you should be very proud of your Great-Grandfather.

  • Daniel Garfield Posted March 23, 2023 2:50 am

    Very good reading. My Great Grandfather was John George Dartnell, and I am very proud of his service. He served where ever he was sent and did an excellent job of it. He should have been awarded the VC for his service, but politics got in the way multiple times.

    • Bulldog Posted March 24, 2023 12:55 pm

      You are quite right to be proud: he was an amazing man, and Natal was lucky to have him there in 1899!

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