The 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers can be said to be have been one of the most famous regiments of the British Army, and its gallant charge at Omdurman on the 2 September 1898, is legendary. Just seventeen-years later, and almost to the day, the 21st lancers would again goad their mounts, in another valiant, yet futile charge, at Shabkadar in North India, and this time a young South African, Lieutenant Neville Rudd Thompson, would ride with them.
The 21st Lancers began its life as a regiment of light-dragoons, founded in 1760 by the Marquess of Granby, who was later to become Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, and were known as the 21st (Granby’s) Light Dragoons.
The regiment was disbanded, however, a mere three years later, but upon the commencement of hostilities in 1775 in British North America, against the colonists, was again reformed. Now known as the 21st (Douglas’s) Light Dragoons, after Colonel John Douglas, it was engaged in combating smuggling along the rugged Yorkshire coastline, and was again disbanded when hostilities ceased in 1783.
Given life yet again, this time in February 1794, during the Napoleonic wars, as the 21st (Beaumont’s) Light Dragoons, it finally saw active service in the West Indies and at the Cape of Good Hope, the regiment having been sent to Cape Town to assist in the defence of the vital trading route to India, and, rather unfortunately, took part in the disastrous expedition to South America in 1807.
Thirteen years-later, in 1820, and just as had happened in the past with the silencing of trumpet and cannon, they were again disbanded, and would have to wait forty-years before the regiment’s renaissance, in May 1861, when the 3rd Bengal European Light Cavalry Regiment became the 21st Hussars.
They then spent thirty-odd years in England, Ireland and India, before they were sent to Egypt in 1896, and informed of yet another name-change; they were now the 21st Lancers. And then came the Battle of Omdurman.
The 21st Lancers had finally caught up with Destiny! On that fateful day, 2 September 1898, the Anglo-Egyptian Army which had been tasked with re-conquering the Sudan, reached the fort of Omdurman, the Mahdi’s Capital.
The gunboats went into action and it was not long before the “Khalifa” and his merry horde of Dervishes delivered a fearsome attack on the British defensive-position or “zareba”, situated on the banks of the ancient river Nile.
After a couple hours of fierce fighting, the Dervishes were seen to be on the retreat to Omdurman, or so it seemed, and the 21st Lancers, the only regular unit of cavalry available to Kitchener, were ordered to attack and cut them off from the city.
The regiment moved forward in accordance with their orders, and were soon engaged by what appeared to be merely a few hundred Dervish skirmishers.
Naturally enough, they were given the order to charge, and charge they did, right through the thin line of skirmishers into a dry riverbed absolutely awash with Dervish Warrirors.
The trap had been sprung. Suffice it to say, the fighting was ghastly and the men of the 21st Lancers literally fought for their lives, eventually cutting a swathe through the enemy, but with the loss of 21 killed and 50 wounded. The brave men of the 21st Lancers had won their spurs and as a result were accorded the title, the 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers, and were the only regiment entitled to wear Queen Victoria’s Royal Cypher.
This was the fine cavalry regiment that our young South African, Lieutenant Neville Rudd Thompson, joined in Egypt in February in 1912, just fourteen years after its most famous charge, and a regiment second-to-none. Neville Rudd Thompson was the third son of the famous South African hunter and explorer, Francis Robert “Matabele” Thompson and Georgina Thompson (neé Rees). Neville Thompson was born in 1892 and was educated at Diocesan College (“Bishop’s”) in Rondebosch, Cape Town, South Africa. A keen sprinter, it was while at “Bishop’s” that he won the Jamieson Cup in 1908.And then it was off to the Royal Military College (RMC), Sandhurst, which he entered in 1911, becoming Senior Colour-Sergeant of the College Cadets.
He was gazetted to the 21st Lancers in February 1912, joining his regiment in Cairo, and subsequently served with it in India, and was a member of the team that won the Indian Polo Cup in 1914, just prior to the start of First World War.
The regiment would spend the duration of World War One (1914-1919) in India, seeing action on the ever-restless North West Frontier. The 21st Lancers first served with the 14th (Rawalpindi) Brigade of the 2nd (Rawalpindi) Division, before joining the 1st (Risalpur) Cavalry Brigade of the 1st (Peshawar) Division in October 1914. The Division was Headquartered in Peshawar and manned stations at Chitral, Drosh, Malakand, Chakdara, Dargia, Abazan, Jamrus, Shabkadar and Mardan, and remained thus throughout the war.
This how the war correspondent, F.A. McKenzie, described the rugged mountain-men of the North West Frontier: “They are naturally robber tribes, living in mountain fastnesses and preying as opportunity offers on their weaker neighbours. Independent, hating control, warriors by birth, by training, and by instinct, fighting is their normal life, and it was only the fear and authority of the British Raj that kept many of them temporarily at peace.”
It is not within the scope of this article to describe the complicated and protracted events surrounding fighting on the North West Frontier, but to focus our attention on Lieutenant Thompson and the 21st Lancers, and their part in the Battle at Shabkadar on the 5 September 1915. On that fateful morning, Mohmand tribesmen had descended from the hills near the Kuhn Pass and advanced right in the open to within the environs of Shabkadar village. As they approached, the British howitzers and field-guns opened on them, but the tribesmen kept on, threatening the left flank of the Anglo-Indian forces. It was then that two squadrons of the 21st Lancers, one squadron of the 14th Lancers, and one squadron of a mounted battery of the Royal Horse Artillery moved out to engage the enemy. The British troops moved out around Shabkadar village and occupied some foot-hills to the north. The Mohmands ignored the Indian Cavalry and concentrated their fire upon the British Lancers. The 21st Lancers were eager to distinguish themselves, for, rather ironically, the seventeenth anniversary of their great charge at Omdurman in 1898, had taken place only two days prior. Again, F.A. McKenzie writes: “The Mohmands were entrenched in their sangars and in the nullahs (deep, dry ditches) along the foot of the hills. The 21st Lancers charged full against a large force, went through them, and turned straight again into a dense mass of Mohmands. At one point they were charging over what they thought to be level ground when a blind nullah intervened.” He goes on to relate the description of events given by a soldier of the Royal Sussex Regiment: "The 21st Lancers charged what they thought to be a small belt, but came suddenly on a big ditch, and a lot of horses and men fell in. Then out of the grass on the other side about 3,000 Mohmands came. The only thing they could do was to charge. They went right through them, turned round, and charged back again. One chap, about nineteen years old, just out from England, killed five with his lance, leaving it sticking in the fifth one, and two more with his sword." Emerging from the bed of the Minchi-Abazai Canal they came under very heavy fire at close range, and proceeded to charge the enemy a third time, and in this charge, which really decided the battle, they suffered heavily, and it was then that Lieutenant Neville Rudd Thompson succumbed, of which F.A. Mckenzie’s account says : “Lieut. Thompson was so severely wounded that he died in the evening.” Of the five officers who took part in the charge, only the adjutant escaped unhurt, three others were killed (including the regiment’s gallant commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Scriven), and one wounded, while Private Hull was awarded the Victoria Cross. In addition, the 21st (Empress of India’s)Lancers had acquired their second Battle Honour, 'North West Frontier'.
Now let us return to Lieutenant Thompson. “Matabele” Thompson, Neville’s grieving father, would later receive a letter from Major D.W. Godfree of the 21st Lancers, written on the 6 September 1915, giving the details of Lieutenant Thompson’s death at Battle of Shabkadar. In it he writes: “ I hope I am not the first to have to break the news to you of your gallant son’s death here on September 5. I hope he wrote you last mail and told you that he was just off as signalling officer to our Colonel with two of our squadrons ordered to proceed to Adozai, near Peshawar, to join our force of two brigades infantry assembling to repel a portending attack by the Mohmand Tribe onto the plains. This tribe advanced from their hills yesterday morning (September 5) some 15, 000 strong, against our force at Shabkade [Shabkadar], which numbered about 8000 natives and English troops (including our two squadrons). They were opposed by the infantry and held, when it was seen that large forces of the Mohmands had got almost round our left flank along a canal. The G.O.C. [Major-General F. Campbell] ordered the two squadrons [of the] 21st lancers and one squadron [of the] 14th [King’s Hussars] Lancers and a Horse Battery to move round to the left flank and stop the enemy at all costs. Moving round behind cover the cavalry crossed a canal and at once found themselves in front of hordes of Mohmands.
Our squadrons at once charged them and rallied and charged again, and yet a third time after rallying they went in amongst them with a third charge, and it was in this glorious piece of work that your son met his death as a gallant gentleman and a brave soldier should, and God knows how I envy him. I regret to say I was unfortunate enough to be left with my ‘A’ Squadron and ‘D’ Squadron at Risalpur, and cannot claim any share of the honour won. They say your son, before he was shot, did great execution with his sword and killed many of the enemy, which I can well believe, as he was good with his sword or lance, and I feel proud in the knowledge that I taught him to use his weapons, when I was adjutant and after[wards] when I was his squadron leader. He fell shortly before our Colonel [Scriven] was shot after his horse had been shot under him. I am sure you and all his relatives and friends will feel as I do – a mixture of great grief that we shall him no more and enjoy his frank and open good nature, generosity, modest pride in his strength and manly activity, and also of pride and thanksgiving that, for you, your son, and for us, our great friend has given his life as gallantly as he lived it for his regiment, his country, and for God.”
Following the war, the 21st Lancers amalgamated with the 17th (Duke of Cambridge’s Own) Lancers, to form the 17th/21st Lancers, and again due to political vagary, is no longer extant, but forms part of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, which also includes the old 5th,16th and 17th Lancers. And of our gallant and intrepid South African, Lieutenant Neville Rudd Thompson, of the 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers, he lies buried at Subham Khwar Cemetry, No. I. 3. (while his name appears on Face 1 of the Delhi Memorial, “India Gate” ), a piece of hallowed ground that will forever be “South Africa”.
[Sources: The ‘South Africa” Magazine, dated 11 March 1916, pp 368-369;'The Defence of India', by F. A. McKenzie, ‘The Great War’, edited by H.W. Wilson, volume 7, chapter 128; Diocesan College War Register, Rondebosch, Cape Town,1914-1919); The Queen’s Royal Lancers Web Page; The Commonwealth War Grave’s Commission Website]