Major Edward Robertson Gordon was my great-great-great uncle, the eldest son of Captain Thomas Edward Gordon of the 14th Light Dragoons. He was born in New Zealand on 24 February 1864, educated at United Services College in Devon and saw extensive action with the 9th Lancers during the Boer War, when he commanded a squadron, briefly commanded the regiment, was wounded and was Mentioned in Despatches. Following the war he and Lieutenant Colonel F.F. Colvin co-authored Diary of the Ninth Lancers in South Africa 1899-1902 (London, Cecil Roy, 1904), based on their own private diaries. As a day-by-day account, it is one of the most interesting regimental histories to emerge from the Boer War; in it Gordon’s involvement can be traced over nearly two and a half years of active service in South Africa. He is also mentioned in a very informative diary by another 9th Lancers officer, Lieutenant Eustace Abadie, who served alongside Gordon in South Africa from the outbreak of the war until February 1900, and which has only recently been published (Spies, S.B., 1989, A soldier in South Africa: the experiences of Eustace Abadie, 1899-1902. Houghton, South Africa, the Brenthurst Press),. Another detailed account, based in large part on Colvin and Gordon’s Diary but including the first-hand account of another officer, Lieutenant Allhusen, is in the regimental history (Major E.W. Sheppard, The Ninth Queen’s Royal Lancers 1715-1936, Gale & Polden, 1939), which can be read online at the website of the 9th/12th Lancers Regimental Museum.
The volume Gordons under Arms: a Biographical Muster Roll of Officers named Gordon (C.O. Skelton and J.M. Bullock, Aberdeen University, 1912) contains a summary of Edward Gordon’s military career, alongside that of his father and his uncle William Cracroft Gordon, who had been an officer in the 9th Lancers in the 1850s. The details are drawn from the Army Lists, which include an officer’s dates of promotion, regiment and any active service. They show that he was commissioned first into the 3rd (Militia) Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, on 23 February 1884. A militia commission was an alternative to Sandhurst as a route to a regular commission in an infantry or cavalry regiment, which he achieved on 25 November 1885 when he became a Lieutenant in the 2nd Dragoon Guards (The Queen’s Bays). He spend much of the next decade with that regiment in India, first at Umballa and then at Sialkot, and was promoted to Captain on 18 September 1895. After the 2nd Dragoon Guards returned to England he transferred on 16 December 1896 to the 9th Lancers, and then went with them to South Africa where they were stationed from August 1896 to March 1898; after that they went on to Muttra in India. In 1899 the regiment was ordered again to South Africa in anticipation of conflict with the Boers, arriving on 10-11 October - the day that the war began - and leaving again for India on 13 March 1902, some two months before the war ended.
The Boer War was named after the itinerant farmers of Dutch and other European origin whose ancestors had occupied the territory of the Cape before the British took over from the Dutch in 1806. Seeking new pasturage and dissatisfied with British rule, especially anti-slavery laws, the Boers trekked north from the 1830s to found Orange Free State and the South African Republic, also known as Transvaal. The immediate cause of the war was the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley near the border of Orange Free State in 1866 and especially of gold in the South African Republic in 1886, both of which drew ‘uitlanders’, foreigners, to the region, most of them British, in numbers that threatened to swamp the local Boer population. The war was fought from the Boer side to protect the sovereignty of the republics, and from the British to protect the interests of the ‘uitlanders’ and advance those of British speculators and imperialists who could see gain in annexing the Boer states.
The 9th Lancers were present in all three phases of the conflict that ensued - the first in October-December 1899 when the Boers inflicting a series of defeats on the British and besieged Kimberley and other towns, the second in January-September when the British went on the offensive, resulting in nominal control of both republics, and the third from then until May 1903 when the Boers conducted a guerrilla war and the British responded with a ‘scorched earth’ policy in which farms were destroyed and their occupants interned. The Boers, organised into ‘commandos’, proved to be formidable opponents, and by the end of the war over half a million British and colonial troops had served in the war. Some 20,000 British and colonial troops and over 6,000 Boers died in the conflict , as well as over 46,000 civilians from disease and starvation in the internment camps - at least 20,000 of them Africans and 26,000 Boers, many of those women and children.
The Army List for 1906 contains the following summary of Edward Gordon’s Boer War service:
Colvin and Gordon’s Diary and Abadie’s diary give further details. The ship carrying the squadron to which Gordon was attached, D Squadron, arrived at Durban on 10 October 1899, and the regiment first came under fire on 10 November at Luipers Kop. He was appointed Brigade-Major to Major-General J.B. Babington, the highly regarded commander of the Cavalry Brigade, on 13 December, continuing in that post until 7 February 1900. Abadie recorded that ‘Gordon is now Brigade Major and is doing excellently well; I hope he gets a brevet for the war - it will make all the difference to him.’ On 16 February he was wounded when the Boers opened a ‘heavy fire’ near Dronfield, and he did not return to the regiment until 11 April. Abadie noted that Gordon was hit in the neck, though not ‘seriously’. On 7 May he was put in charge of the regimental Maxim machine gun, taking it into action on 19 July and then on 31 August near Quaggafontein. He was Mentioned in Despatches in Lord Robert’s Despatch of 4 September 1901 (London Gazette, 12 December 1901, 1234), along with Colvin and several other officers and enlisted men of the regiment (before the introduction of the Military Cross in 1915, a ‘Mention in Despatches’ was the only award available to officers below the rank of Major other than the Victoria Cross, the ‘brevet’ mentioned by Abadie being an advance in rank given for meritorious service).
From 22 September 1900 until the end of the war – the last action for the regiment on 3 March 1902 – he was in command of D Squadron, one of three squadrons of the regiment. In late December 1901 he temporarily took over command of the regiment, and on 2 January 1902 he led it and the Cape Mounted Rifles on a reconnaissance. For much of this period the regiment formed part of a mobile ‘column’ that swept the countryside and carried out raids. Gordon and Colvin’s diary first mentions the regiment carrying out farm burning on 17 October 1900, and then mentions it frequently until May 1901, as ‘burning’, ‘destruction’ or ‘clearance’, including the burning of grain. On 28 May 1901 the column of which the regiment was part included ‘from 25,000 to 30,000 sheep and nearly 1,000 cattle, besides families.’ A photograph in the diary entitled ‘Farm clearing by “A” Squadron’ shows soldiers overseeing women outside a building tying up their belongings in sheets.
Of the many actions in which his squadron was involved during this period, one singled out in the regimental history, mentioning his name, was the capture of ‘Lotter’s Commando’ on 5 September 1901, when A and D Squadrons encircled a farm which the commando had occupied. At a cost of 9 men killed and 9 wounded, the Lancers and a squadron of the Cape Mounted Rifles ‘fought it out muzzle to muzzle’ with the Boers, killing 13, wounding 46 and capturing the remaining 74 men, in one of the more successful British actions of this nature in the later part of the war. By this time the cavalry had become highly skilled in the terrain, having learned from the Boers and becoming proficient at travelling long distances for reconnaissance, raids and ambushes.
The regiment covered more than 8,500 miles during the war, not including reconnaissance and patrolling. Altogether they sustained 203 casualties, comprising 45 men killed or died of wounds, 26 died of disease or accident and 130 wounded, and the rest prisoners, as well losing many horses – including almost a hundred during a storm in the passage from India. These casualties represent a considerable part of the regiment, which at one point in September 1901 was down to 15 officers, 150 men and 36 fit horses (they had left Muttra with 16 officers, 475 men and 518 horses).
Edward Gordon was promoted to Major in India on 15 March 1904 and retired from the Army after the regiment returned once again to South Africa in 1906, when he left to run his part of the family’s 11,860 acre sheep station at Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand. He left there in December 1910 to live with his father in a large house near Bideford in Devon, where he died in 1914. His nephew John Gordon also served as an officer in the 9th Lancers, joining them in Italy in 1945 near the end of the Second World War.
As a result of its extensive Boer War experience, the 9th Lancers had a high degree of campaigning experience among its senior officers and N.C.O.s at the outbreak of the First World War compared to many other regiments in the British Army. On my mother’s side, my grandfather Tom Verrinder and his brother Edgar served in the 9th Lancers during the First World War, and my grandfather told me that he knew many men in the regiment who were Boer War veterans. These included both of the commanding officers during his service, Lieutenant Colonels H.M. Durand and R.H.R. Brocklebank, and Brigadier D.J.E. Beale-Brown, commanding officer of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, all of whom had been fellow-officers of Edward Gordon in South Africa. Durand was wounded alongside Gordon in the action at Dronfield in February 1900. Lieutenant (later Major) Abadie, who won the D.S.O. in South Africa, died of wounds following the action of the 9th Lancers at Messines on 31 October 1914, when the regiment suffered more officers killed in one day than they had in the entire Boer War.
I’m very grateful to Angela Tarnowski, curator of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers Museum in Derby, for allowing me to reproduce the photographs acknowledged here; to Ian Gill, former curator of the 1st Dragoon Guards Museum in Cardiff, for the photograph of Gordon in the Queen’s Bays; and to my cousin Angus Gordon of Clifton Station, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, for providing much information about Edward Gordon and the family history.
Army List 1884-1911
Colvin, Lieutenant Colonel F.F. and Gordon, Captain E.R., 1904, Diary of the Ninth Lancers in South Africa 1899-1902. London, Cecil Roy (available as a Naval and Military Press reprint here).
London Gazette 10 September 1901 (also in The Times 13 September 1901, p 342).
Shepperd, Major E.W., 1939, The Ninth Queen’s Royal Lancers 1715-1936. Aldershot, Gale & Polden (online here).
Skelton, C.O. and J.M. Bullock, 1912, Gordons under Arms: a Biographical Muster Roll of Officers named Gordon. Aberdeen University (online here).
Spies, S.B., 1989, A soldier in South Africa: the experiences of Eustace Abadie, 1899-1902. Houghton, South Africa, the Brenthurst Press.
Whyte, F. and Alteridge, A.H., 1930, A History of the Queen’s Bays (the 2nd Dragoon Guards) 1685-1929. London, Jonathan Cape.