The City Imperial Volunteers

In December 1899 the British Empire had been embroiled in a bitter war against the Boers in South Africa for two and a half months.

The Boers were descended from the original dutch colonialists who had settled in Cape Colony between 1652 until 1793 when Britain seized control of the Eastern Cape from Holland.

In 1834 the British government enforced the emancipation of slaves throughout the Empire. This precipitated the Great Treck of Boers from the areas under British control into the what became the new Boer republics of Orange Free State, and Transvaal.

The British later annexed both these territories.

The Boers regained the internal government of the Transvaal during the first Boer War which culminated in the British defeat at the battle of Majuba in 1880 .

The Transvaal was found to have great deposits of gold. The Boers soon became a minority amongst the white population as the lure of gold brought 'uitlanders' or foreigners into the Republic.

The Boer treatment of the African native population and their refusal to grant voting rights to non-Boer white settlers and of course the gold led to British moves to regain control of full government of the Transvaal.

The Boer government resisted the British proposals and on 10 October 1899 the second Boer War commenced.

On 15 December 1899 the British suffered over a thousand casualties at the battle of Colenso. Although the losses in men and equipment were not significant to the overall British position, the press at home seized on the losses and proclaimed 'Black Week'.

The British commander General Sir Redvers Buller was recalled within three days and replaced by the old warhorse and holder of the Victoria Cross, Field Marshall Lord Roberts of Kandahar known to the men as 'Bobs', with Lord Kitchener, the Sirdar of Egypt, hero of the battle of Omdurman as his Chief of Staff. The selection of these two ancient warriors was probably more to do with the respect they were held in by the public than with their modern military capabilities.

In the aftermath of 'Black Week' it finally dawned on the British Government that they had sent the wrong kind of army to South Africa, what was needed was a mobile force that could match the manoeuvrability of the Boers.

The idea of a Mounted Light Infantry had been proposed by Buller earlier. Lord Woseley the Commander in Chief had called for a volunteer army. On 16 & 18 December 1899 the Army Board met and three days later the press carried the news of the formation of the Imperial Yeomanry. The idea caught the imagination of the public. The result was a volunteer army of ten thousand rank and files half of which were from the middle classes. Public figures made large donations of money to fund the Yeomanry.

In London the Lord Mayor promoted the yeomanry and the City Imperial Volunteers were born. The City Corporation paid for one thousand volunteers. Crowds formed outside the recruiting office in London. Thirty four Members of Parliament, Peers, stockbrokers, journalists became gentleman rankers in the volunteers.

The popular song, 'Goodbye Dolly Grey' caught the spirit of the day.

Goodbye Dolly Gray
Words: Will D. Cobb, Music: Paul Barnes

I have come to say goodbye, Dolly Gray
It's no use to ask me why, Dolly Gray
There's a murmur in the air, you can hear it everywhere
It is the time to do and dare, Dolly Gray

Don't you hear the tramp of feet, Dolly Gray
Sounding through the village street, Dolly Gray
'Tis the tramp of soldiers' feet in their uniforms so neat
So goodbye until we meet, Dolly Gray

Goodbye Dolly I must leave you, though it breaks my heart to go
Something tells me I am needed at the front to fight the foe
Can't you see the boys are marching and I can no longer stay
Hark, I hear the bugle calling, Goodbye Dolly Gray

Hear the rolling of the drums, Dolly Gray
Back from war the regiment comes, Dolly Gray
On your lovely face so fair, I can see a look of fear
For your soldier boy's not there, Dolly Gray

For the one you love so well, Dolly Gray
In the midst of battle fell, Dolly Gray
With his face toward the foe, as he died he murmured low
"I must say goodbye and go, Dolly Gray"

Goodbye Dolly I must leave you, though it breaks my heart to go
Something tells me I am needed at the front to fight the foe
Can'tyou see the boys are marching and I can no longer stay
Hark I hear the bugle calling, Goodbye Dolly Gray

The City Imperial Volunteers had their finest hour at the battle of Doornkop outside Krugerdorp on 26 May 1900. Doornkop a high ridge was held by the entrenched Boers.

The City Imperial Volunteers were given the place of honour in the front line supported by the Gordon Highlanders.

In the uphill charge that followed the Highlanders followed the traditional tactics of walking slowly up hill towards the enemy and lost a hundred men in ten minutes. The non-traditional amateurs of the City Imperial Volunteers made their advance in short rushes each group covering the next as they advanced towards the Boers, and suffered few casualities. Doornkop was taken from the Boers.

The City Imperial Volunteers returned to London in October 1900 and on 29th October made a state entry into the City. The public celebration on that day was so great, that one of the capitals underground railways, the Central Line, which had been in operation for only a few weeks, alone carried 250,000 passengers.

One volunteer, Alfred George Eatly, the son of George and Sarah Elizabeth, of Islington, London, did not take part in the celebrations. He had been laid to rest in South Africa.

By 1902 the Boers were fighting the British forces and the Zulus and eventually following peace talks they surrendered to the British on 31st May 1902.

Six thousand Empire troops and seven thousand Boers had been killed in action. Sixteen thousand Empire troops had died of disease or wounds, and up to twenty eight thousand civilians had died as a result of the conflict. The death of seven thousand Africans was recorded, but the real figure was probably many times that.

The costs to the British Government was over 200,000,000. The costs to the Boers in loss of livestock and land was incalculable.

Much of the information on this page comes from:

i. What is probably the best book on the Boer War 'The Boer War' by Thomas Pakenham, George Weidenfield & Nicolson 1979.

ii. 'The Great Boer War' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, on-line at the Gutenurg Project: The Great Boer War

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