Both battalions fought in the Boer War from 1899 onwards although the 1st Battalion were in South Africa from October and the 2nd arrived in Cape Town on 20th November.
Belmont Reconnaissance 10th Nov 1899
The 1st Battalion was part of Lord Methuen's column for the Relief of Kimberley. Reports of a Boer presence at Kaffir's Kop prompted a reconnaissance which involved 2 squadrons of cavalry, field artillery, mounted infantry and detachments from 3 infantry regiments of which one was the Northumberland Fusiliers. Eventually the Boers were discovered and found to be in large numbers. Although the object of the recce was to ascertain the size of the enemy force a battle was fought which lasted 3 hours. In the course of this action two officers were killed, including Lieut-Colonel Keith-Falconer. Two other officers of the regiment were wounded, Lieutenants Bevan and Hall.
Battle of Belmont 23rd Nov 1899
The 9th Brigade was formed for Lord Methuen's column commanded at first by Colonel Featherstonhaugh, of which the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers formed part. At Belmont, 70 miles south of Kimberley, the Boers were in a defensive position on a kopje to the east. In the plan of attack the 9th brigade was to place itself, on the night of the 22nd, on the west side of Table mountain and advance towards the enemy at daybreak. The Guards brigade suffered the most in their advance on Gun Hill from the north but the attacks combined at the summit to drive the Boers along a line of hills. The regiment, in the fore-front of the brigade's attack, came under a fierce cross-fire from well defended positions. The battle lasted 4 hours but ended with the retreat of the Boers.
The casualties sustained by the Northumberland Fusiliers were 2 officers killed, Capt Eager and Lieut Brine and 12 men. Major Dashwood and Lieut Festing were wounded along with 36 men. Col Featherstonhaugh was wounded and had to hand over command of the brigade to Lieut-Col Charles Money, CO of the 1st Battalion.
Battle of Graspan (Enslin) 25th Nov 1899
This battle, at the next station on the railway north to Kimberley, involved incredible feats of bravery on the part of the British troops, especially the sailors and marines of the Naval Brigade. The strength of the Boer force on top of hills near Graspan was seriously underestimated. The Northumberland Fusiliers and the Northamptons of the 9th Brigade, which was still commanded by Colonel Money, were given the task of assaulting the front of the hill while the Naval Brigade and two other battalions climbed the steeper but less well defended east side. Both assaults were covered by artillery fire, but the rifle fire from the Boers formed a storm of bullets through which all the troops struggled. That they made any progress at all was miraculous, however they made it to the summit, only to find the enemy had fled. Unfortunately the cavalry bungled the pursuit and many survived to fight another day.
Battle of Modder River 28th Nov 1899
At Modder River the Free State Boers were commanded by de la Rey their ablest commander. He sited his men along the banks of the rivers Modder and Riet, at the confluence, rather than place them on high ground. This well sited defensive position covered a stretch of river for 7.5 kilometres. The 9th Brigade were commanded this time by Major-General Pole-Carew and augmented by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The Northumberland Fusiliers were ordered to advance on the east side of the railway with a half battalion of the Argylls
The battle was a terrible ordeal for most of the infantry and artillery. The strong position of the Boers allowed them to maintain steady and accurate fire which pinned men down for most of the long hot day. Again the Guards took most of the casualties but the Northumberland Fusiliers lost 11 men killed and 34 wounded. Two officers and five men were mentioned in Lord Methuen's despatch:
"...Major the Hon C Lambton, Northumberland Fusiliers is mentioned for having rendered invaluable assistance to his Brigadier. Lieutenant Percival managed with great difficulty to establish himself with a small party on a point near the railway, from which, by his judgement and coolness, he was able to keep down the fire of the enemy, many of his small party being killed."
"Nos.3499 Lance-Corporal R Delaney, 4160 Private J East, 4546 Private Segar, 4497 Private Snowdon, Northumberland Fusiliers, under a very heavy fire picked up and brought in a wounded man of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; no 3955 Private Smarley, Northumberland Fusiliers, no.1 of a Maxim detachment, who showed great coolness and judgment when wounded."
The Stormberg Disaster 10th Dec 1899
The 2nd Battalion had the great misfortune to be placed in the 3000 strong force commanded by General Sir William Gatacre. The plan was to send the force by train to Molteno and engage with the enemy at Stormberg, a 15 mile march away. Due to mismanagement the men were roused at 4am on the 9th Dec and kept busy with fatigue duty until they boarded the train in the afternoon arriving at Molteno at 9.15pm. The long night march started well but the Cape Police guide could not find the right route and what should have been a 4 hour march stretched to 7 hours. Gatacre had made the idiotic mistake of leaving behind men who knew the area.
At 3.45am the leading men, Irish Rifles, were fired on from the hills. They went to the left and occupied a kopje while the Northumberland Fusiliers advanced up the steep slopes of the Kissieberg hills against the enemy. But the CO of the battalion realised that their position was untenable and ordered them to retire across the open to a ridge beyond, however a large number of men were left behind and they ended up as prisoners of the Boers.
A court of inquiry was subsequently held and Captain Fletcher claimed that although he saw a retreat in progress he did not have any orders to do so. He and his men continued to climb but were shelled by the RA and were compelled to retire to the base of the hill where they remained and later surrendered. The court declared that there seemed to have been great confusion and a lack of definite orders, so the officers and men of the battalion were exonerated.
The men were utterly exhausted after a long and difficult night march, with fixed bayonets, and they had spent the previous day on inconsequential fatigues. These factors combined to cause the dispirited men to accept surrender more easily than they might normally have done. The casualties of the battalion were 12 killed and 70 wounded. More than 300 were taken prisoner. The named officers on the list of prisoners were Major Stevens, Captains Fletcher and Morley, Lieutenants Radcliffe, Wake and Coulson.
Siege of Lichtenburg 3rd Mar 1901
The latter part of the year and into 1901 the 1st Battalion was the last remaining unit under Lord Methuen and was still involved in endless treks. By February 300 of them were garrisoned at Lichtenburg along with 200 Yeomanry troops, and the battalion CO, Colonel Charles Money commanded the town. On 3rd March 1500 Boers under de la Rey attacked the place. The assault lasted from 3am until midnight but failed in their attempt. Two officers and 13 men were killed, 20 wounded. Seven other ranks were mentioned for bravery in despatches.
Attack near Zeerust Oct 1901
A small force was detached from Methuen which consisted of the 4th Battery RA and men of the 1st Battalion. They were attacked by de la Rey and 1000 Boers who killed most of the battery and 12 men of the battalion. One officer and 13 men were wounded but the Boers suffered heavier casualties, 40 dead. Five NCOs and men of the Northumberland Fusiliers were mentioned for this action.
TAttack on the way to Klerksdorp 25th Feb 1902
Three companies of the 1st Battalion were part of a small column travelling to Klerksdorp in Feb 1902 when they were attacked, again by de la Rey and 1500 men. The Boers were more successful this time and after two failed attempts managed to break through the defense. Three officers and 9 men were killed, 2 officers and 62 men wounded.
Action near Klein Harts River 6th and 7th Mar 1902
De la Rey was encouraged by his success and by reinforcements coming in so that on 6th Mar the Boers attacked Methuen's column of Infantry, Yeomanry and artillery. The artillery held them off but the attack was renewed at dawn the next day. Unfortunately the yeomanry were thrown into confusion and left the artillery unprotected which resulted in heavy casualties amongst the gunners. The infantry stood firm and Captain Montague of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers was praised for the steadiness of his men but they could only hold out for a few hours before being forced to surrender.
1st Battalion in 1900
The battle of Magersfontein on 11th Dec did not involve the 1st Battalion as much as the three previous battles at Belmont, Graspan and Modder River, although Major Ray was killed in the action. The 9th Brigade did little fighting for the next 3 months and command of the brigade went from Pole-Carew to Major-General Douglas. Methuen's column was reduced during 1900 and the battalion covered a lot of ground in long marches, from Heilbron to Paardekraal then Kroonstad, Krugersdorp and Rustenburg. On 29th June they entered Potchefstroom. In August they were pursuing De Wet through Oliphant's Nek, then went to Zeerust and Mafeking. There was success on the way to Schweizer-Reneke when 50 prisoners were captured along with large amounts of ammunition and livestock.
2nd Battalion in 1900
In mid December 1899 the shattered remnant of the 2nd Battalion, following the disaster at Stormberg, were sent to East London until they were fit enough to resume duty. In July they were in Hart's brigade operating in the Reitzburg Hills but by September they were in a column with the 2nd Worcesters, 1st Border Regiment, the 2nd Yorks LI, 900 mounted troops and 8th Battery of RFA under General Clements.
Nooitgedacht 13th Dec 1900
Clements' column was camped south of Nooitgedacht Pass in the Megaliesberg Mountains in Dec 1900. Four companies of the 2nd Battalion were holding the ridges overlooking the camp while two more companies guarded the baggage. On the 13th Dec a force of 3000 Boers surrounded the 4 companies and compelled them to surrender after a few hours of fighting. They sustained 100 casualties, the rest being taken prisoner. General Clements and Lord Kitchener were satisfied that the battalion had put up a strong defense, and one officer and 12 men were mentioned for exceptional bravery.