All That was Left of Them

Via the National Army Museum, Study collection: 17th Lancers near Modderfontein farm, near Tarkastad, in what is today South Africa, 17 September 1901, during the Boer Wars. Known today as the Battle of Elands River, the skirmish involved a British cavalry squadron against a well-armed, albeit starving, Boer commando unit almost twice its size.

Chromolithograph after Richard Caton Woodville (1856-1927), 1901. Published by Gilbert Whitehead and Company Limited as a supplement to ‘Holly Leaves Christmas Number’, 1902. NAM. 1967-07-7-1

On 17 September the presence of a squadron of the 17th (The Duke of Cambridge’s Own) Lancers at Modderfontein farm, 25 km north-west of Johannesburg, was reported to General Jan Smuts, whose commando was starving and short of horses. Smuts ordered a section forward to locate the British cavalry, while he brought up the rest of his men. The advance section ran into a troop of the 17th Lancers which at first mistook the khaki-clad burghers for British troops from another column. When the Boers opened fire, bringing down several of the Lancers, the survivors withdrew to a low, stony ridge further down the road which was held by the rest of the squadron armed with rifles, a machine gun and a mountain gun.

At this point, Smuts arrived with the main body of his commando and attacked the Lancers from a hill to their rear. Close-quarter fighting developed in which the gun crew were killed; the rest of the squadron fought to the finish, though one troop, posted a little further away, was able to escape after expending all its ammunition, the last few rounds being used to shoot their horses to prevent them falling into the hands of the Boers. The total strength of the 17th Lancers engaged was 140, of whom four officers and 32 men were killed and four officers and 33 men wounded.

Smuts would go on to lead his commando for several more weeks in the Cape Colony, largely with the equipment and supplies captured from the British at Modderfontein.

As for the 17th, the regiment would fight in the Great War– earning 16 battle honours in France as both cavalry and infantry– but due to post-Irish independence drawdowns was amalgamated with the 21st Lancers to form the 17th/21st Lancers in 1922. Post-Cold War, the 17th/21st was further amalgamated with the 16th/5th Lancers to form the Queen’s Royal Lancers (QRL) in 1993, “The Death or Glory Boys.”

As part of the Army 2020 reforms intended to reduce the size of the British Army in line with the Strategic Defence and Security Review, it was announced that the 9th/12th Royal Lancers would amalgamate with the Queen’s Royal Lancers to form a single regiment, The Royal Lancers, in 2015, though still using the old “Death or Glory” badge of the 17th.

Modderfontein and all that.

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