The subject of this biography received his first commission in the Second Middlesex Militia (The Seventh Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps) on the 27th August 1879; passing out from the Militia in 1882 he was commissioned as Lieutenant in the Tenth on the 27th January 1883, obtained his troop on the 4th January 1890, promoted to field rank on the 4th May 1898, and to the command of the Regiment as Lieutenant-Colonel on the 11th October 1902. He commanded until the 7th May 1904 when he was selected as the first Commandant of the Cavalry School at Netheravon.
It is difficult to realise that this period of regimental service covers only 21 years and 101 days, and still harder that from the time General Byng joined us to the time he relinquished the command of the Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot on the 11th May 1909, only just over 26 years have lapsed; hard because his record during that periods includes so much and so varied service as few Cavalry Officers can claim.
Averting to the exceedingly great popularity of General Byng with all ranks throughout his service, we dare go further back and declare that never did the Militia possess an Officer who commanded greater respect and esteem than was accorded by the men of the old Barnet Green Battalion of the King’s Rifles to Mr Byng. In his young days, it is chronicled; he was an ardent supporter of the drama and regular attendant of the Old Drury on the first night of the series of pantomimes produced by the late Gus Harris. Many of the “Barnet Greens” with the true London instinct, shared this admiration for the great Drury Lane annuals, and were likewise to be seen there on first nights, needless to say, usually in the loftiest part of the house. When Mr Byng entered he would be quickly recognised by his comrades of the gallery and greeted by them with much delight and with rousing cheers.
The same feelings sprang into existence immediately he joined the Tenth at Lucknow on the 10th March, 1883, and did not cease nor diminish until he left us, at Mhow, 21 years later – what though he took over the command at a most critical time – just after the close of the South African War, when peace soldiering was almost forgotten, and the old notions of discipline were weakened and almost forgotten. Much had to be done to restore the pre-campaign smartness and systems and to renew that cohesion on parades which had been lost on the veldt. No longer could the instruction of the Regiment, or the words of command, could be limited to the posting of outlying picquets, Cossack posts etc., or the shouting of “open out” on the report of a rifle. All was done smoothly, without fuss and without friction, and if the men were sometimes at field addressed derisively as “hands-uppers” they recognised that there may have been some similarity in their movements on parade to what might have been expected from the gentlemen in question if they had been called upon to perform regimental evolutions and accepted the epithet philosophically.
General Byng had not been with the Regiment long before he had begun to identify himself with all its concerns; if memory serves aright, he was put in charge of the institutions in his first year. Amongst these were the Regimental Concert and Dramatic Club, then as now an important factor in the Regiment. Here his versatility was soon revealed; his clever rhyming on regimental topics, his skill on certain musical instruments, and his singing of “The Stall Where the Old Mare Died” and the “Muddle-Puddle Porter” etc. were eagerly looked for and highly appreciated at our entertainments.
But he was soon to be called upon for more serious work, and to be put to the test in the legitimate business of the soldier – battle-fighting. The first year of his service had only been exceeded by one month when he received his baptism of fire. He accompanied the Regiment to the Eastern Soudan and was present at the battles of El Teb and Tamaai; and in the arduous trying reconnaissance of Tamanieb, when quite fifty miles were covered without water; on arriving at the wells in the evening the thirst of the horses was so intense that the men experienced the utmost difficulty in restraining them from breaking away, and rushing in one stampeding mass to the spot in which their instincts informed them that there was relief for their sufferings. The order was rightly “horses first” and officers and men had to strain their impatience as best they could, until the animals, that had carried them so well through a long day of privations, were satisfied. Then they also assuaged their thirst, drinking with avidity, the brackish water, muddied by the horses into thick puddles.
Thus, early in his service General Byng earned the medal for the Soudan, with the clasp for El Teb and Tamaai, and the Khedival bronze star.
On the 20th October 1886 he was appointed Adjutant and held the appointment for the full period of four years. During this period the Regiment was stationed at Aldershot, Hounslow and York, and it was marked by a succession of most satisfactory reports on the efficiency of the Regiment by all Inspecting Officers coupled by a wonderfully small register of desertions and minor offences. This, notwithstanding the fact that two of those stations, by reason of their proximity to London, offer much temptation of a lapse from the path of proprietary and military morality. Hounslow in particular has a reputation as a garrison fatal to the acquisition and retention of good conduct badges: it is such a simple matter to jump into the train and be carried to town, but not so easy to quit the attractions there and catch the last train home. The Tenth proved and exception to the rule, greatly owing to the entertainments introduced into the men’s’ own club – The Canteen – by the Adjutant. And what wretched little premises their club was at Hounslow! Who can forget the ingenuity with which Mr Byng improvised stage and auditorium on the occasions of his variety entertainments, and in the manner in which we all squeezed in the room which for the nonce was dignified by the title of Theatre Royal? And what enjoyment we experienced through a couple of hours in a temperature which, if we were subjected to here without punkahs, would call forth many a grouse! The most popular artists were “Spider and Josh” famous to those who took their pleasures at Henley Regattas and other river resorts. Many other amusements were provided with such good judgement that the desire to go further afield, after the duties of the day were done, disappeared.
Later, when serving at Cahir and Newbridge, we had certainly more spacious accommodation. In the former the riding school was our Theatre, in the latter place the Garrison Theatre supplied a building that met with the approval of the most fastidious amateur Thespian. Both have, many time and oft, resounded with laughter and healthy mirth, provoked by Captain Byng’s original songs, such as “Ours is a Happy Home”. “His Busby lines were hanging down his Back”, his “Home of Good Old Lisa Moke” etc. What cheery nights they were, and what happy recollections are evoked by the memory of them. Indissociable from thoughts of them is the name of Sergeant (Happy) Walker – who invariably was the interpreter of Captain Byng’s compositions, and who, in spite of the fact that he gave a leg for his country in South Africa, is still preserving his title to the name given him by his comrades when he was a very young soldier.
Then there was Sergeant Mogford, with his mechanical donkey, and his song “O Jerusalem”: McDonnell, a really gifted performer in the despised concertina, and many others who formed a company of entertainers which appeared to us to be beyond criticism.
From Hounslow the Regiment marched to York, a march which occupied from the 12th to the 21st April 1888, being billeted in towns en route which provided powerful temptations for men who for a short time escaped from the discipline and routine of barrack life, and to whom the inhabitants invariably extended hearty welcome and equally lavish hospitality. Such towns as Northampton, Leicester and Nottingham may be cited; in these populous places where a Cavalry Regiment is rarely seen, the residents vied with each other in entertaining the men , and it stands to the credit of the Tenth that not one man was brought up for any offence during the march. Mention of the happy three years passed in York has been made in a former number of the Gazette, but we cannot omit to add to the reference to it, how much of it was due to the Adjutant. In all the calls made upon him, he found time not only to encourage the men in every description of healthy games, but also to participate in their games.
The River Ouse especially was made use of to teach rowing, and the Adjutant, unless duty intervened, never failed to respond to a request to do cox and coach a team. The result was enthusiastic completion, and successes in the annual Regattas of the “White Rose Boating Club”. Cricket, also under his auspices, attained a Regimental standard in York which has never since been obtained. In one season the Regimental team, out of twenty-one fixtures, only lost two — to the famous York and Acomb eleven. The team referred to was the eleven of the N. C. O.s and men. True, they included the groundman employed by the Officers, who did good service for them, but equal share to their successes were contributed by that good old cricketer mentioned by Colonel Liddell in his Memoirs of the Tenth, Sergeant-Major Byartt. Sergeant-Major Seymour, Sergeant “Billy” Williams who lived to play more Regimental cricket in South Africa after being badly wounded in the leg at Driefontein; The Brothers Dicks; the redoubtable bowler Tilly; Sergeant Hendry, afterwards Bandmaster of the 20th Hussars; Mr Huntley, the Regimental Boot maker, and others who could always be relied upon for a good show for the Regiment. Byartt, Seymour and Tilly figured regularly in the Regimental eleven, which in this period was almost invincible, and won many victories against such teams as the Gentlemen of York, and of Northumberland, and the strongest Regimental combinations that could be put in the field against The Tenth. It is only necessary to cite the names of such giants at the game as Lord George Scott, Major Hughes-Onslow, Captain the Hon H. T. Allsopp, Sir Arthur Lawley, Colonel Fisher, Lord Downe, Captain Meeking, Lord W. Bentinck, Major Harvey, and the subject of this biography to appraise the standard of regimental cricket in the good old York days. In those pre-Squadron days, each troop had teams of merit, and the annual inter-troop completion (fought out for the honour of regimental championship, without any hope of securing tangible trophies of superiority in the shape of cups or shields) were watched and participated in with a degree of enthusiasm which now appears wondrous.
Captain Byng is also entitled to the credit of the formation of the first football team in the Regiment. Under his auspices, and assisted by his aid, the first game was played behind the Riding School in the York Barracks in 1890; was taken up with much zeal, and soon every troop had its football team. The Regimental Team was formed, played regularly and trained like sportsmen. They went on from success to still greater success, their achievements culminating in the win of the Cavalry Cup tournament in 1898-99. We were at Canterbury at the time, and the never-to-be-forgotten final games were played on neutral ground – Tunbridge Wells and Aldershot. In the former our foemen were the 13th Hussars, from Aldershot, when we won by three goals to one, and in the latter we were pitted against the 8th Hussars who came from Ireland for the struggle. The result was a win for us by 3 goals to 2. By the kindness of Colonel Fisher, who was then in command, as many as could be spared from duty, were allowed to witness these matches and a number quite reaching the limit availed themselves of the permission; special trains were chartered, and hundreds of Tenth Hussars travelled to cheer their champions on the victory in each case. A pleasing feature of each occasion was that not a single man was absent on either.
In 1892 Captain Byng passed the entrance examination for the Staff College, and earned the right to affix “p. s. c.” to his name in 1894.
For a time he came back to Regimental duty, and commanded “A” Squadron, which ultimately became the Reserve Squadron. This command is the most difficult and unpleasing, but certainly the most responsible that a Squadron Leader can have at home. In it the proportion of untrained men exceeds the formed ones by many cents per cent; its composition is ever changing, Officers and N. C. Officers of any calibre must be influenced by the knowledge that all their efforts are for results of which their Squadron would reap no lasting benefit, and the fact that the service Squadrons are invariably keen for the transfer of Captain Byng’s recruits is ample and speaking proof of the Reserve Squadron’s methods and training in his day.
It was undoubtedly the Regiment’s loss that he was not destined to continue long as a Squadron Officer being marked down for the staff
: on the first of June 1897 he was seconded for service with a Cavalry Brigade, and served as the Adjutant of the First Cavalry Brigade. It soon became apparent that this appointment did not afford scope for his abilities, for, on the 20th October in the same year, his sphere was enlarged by an appointment as Deputy Assistant Adjutant General. At this time he was also appointed Secretary of Dress and Equipment Committee of the Army, and was called upon to fill posts in many local Committees at Aldershot, which involved much work but do not find a place in any but local records.
On the outbreak of war in South Africa, as may have been expected, he was selected t accompany the Late General Sir Redvers Buller V. C. , who had been his chief at Aldershot, and who, as will be remembered, left for the seat of war early in November 1899.
Major Byng’s first appointment was of Provost Marshal, but no surprised was experienced when we learnt that, simultaneous with his arrival in south Africa, he was selected for a far more important service, one which undoubtedly had an important and far-reaching effect on the history of the whole war. He was given command of the South Africa Light Horse, the first irregular Cavalry Regiment formed in the war. But first the Regiment had to be raised, armed, and equipped, but the whole of these preliminaries few on the newly appointed Commanding Officer. His phenomenal success in gathering together such a heterogeneous mass of men, and in welding it into one homogenous whole is ancient history now, but will ever stand out as proof of General Byng’s personality and his wonderful capacity of organisation. Probably martinets would have criticised his scallywags unkindly, and military pedants may have looked upon askance; but none could doubt their gallantry, or that their Commanding Officer could get the last ounce out of them. As an example of the composition of the Corps, it may be said that one Squadron was formed almost entirely of Texan muleteers; they had come over with mules, and were attracted by their own gallant spirit into the fighting line, shoulder to shoulder with kinsmen from over the seas.
So early as the 22nd November 1899, the first party of the South Africa Light Horse embarked at Cape Town for Natal, and formed part of the force under General Buller which concentrated on Frere on the 9th December.
The Regiment, under its gallant leader, bore an honourable part in the disastrous battle of Colenso, on the 15th, and the operations which proceeded it was despatched to demonstrate against the southern slope of Advance Hill –about 3,000 yards from Hlangwane, while Thorneycroft’s composite Regiment, made up of one Squadron of Natal Carabineers, a detachment of the Natal Police, one Squadron of the Imperial Light Horse, and one mounted company of the King’s Royal Rifles and the Dublin Fusiliers — were directed to work round the Gomra Spruit, and endeavour to push through the dense thorn bush up the eastern face. The 13th Hussars were held in reserve close to Advance Hill. The force thus launched for the attack was somewhat less than the Boer commando which held the position. The advance was checked by the discovery that the force was outflanked by Boers occupying the ridge to the eastward.
This was about 7.40 a.m. and at 11.00 a.m. after the failure of the attempt to save Colonel Long’s guns, it was decided to withdraw the whole force. The order to retire reached the Officer Commanding the Mounted Troops about 12. Noon, at which time they were still hotly engaged with the enemy, and its gradual disentanglement took nearly three hours. Two Officers and sixteen men of the South Africa Light Horse were taken prisoner in the retirement this day, from a battle in which they had been actively engaged for nearly twelve hours.
Colonel Byng, with his Regiment in less than a month after Colenso was taking a prominent part in arduous day at Spion Kop, which may be said to have been opened by the S. A. L. Horse, for we read that early on the 10th January a small party of the Regiment under Lieutenant Carlisle swam the broad Tugela River, under heavy fire, and brought back the ferry boat, an enterprise which was fortunately bloodless, but which was most coolly planned, and gallantly carried out. And in this manner the way was opened for our advance which occupied many days, the culminating attack being made on the night of the 22nd January. It is hopeless to attempt a description of the tenacity, the gallantry and the powers of endurance displayed by the troops engaged in the fighting which commenced that night, and lasted throughout the whole of the next day until the darkness of night had again thrown its mantle over the belligerents. The details of the abandonment of the position which had been so dearly bought have been too well known to need any reference here, and we pass on to the 5th February when, reinforcements having come up, General Buller again sallied forth to try once more to win a way into Ladysmith. Enteric was decimating the besieged garrison, shot shell and bullet had struck down a terrible proportion, and rations of men and animals were merely a name. Knowing that their comrades were in such straits, within 15 miles of them, the soldiers of the relieving for braced themselves up for a supreme effort.
Engaged heavily daily, capturing, in the face of strong opposition, and under what now appears insuperable difficulties, positions of Swartz Kop, Vaalkranz, and hills commanding it, Hussar Hill, Cingolo Hill, and Monte Cristo; by the 20th February our army was firmly established along the whole south bank of the river, had occupied Colenso, and had pushed their heavy guns to a more advanced position. The next day a pontoon bridge was thrown over the river near Colenso, and crossing commenced the same evening. The first Brigade to cross was hotly engaged before nightfall by the Boers who occupied the low Kopjies in front of them, which blazed with musketry fire; a Brigadier and 150 rank and file fell, but the brigade doggedly held its own. Next morning the main body crossed, then came the assault on Pieter’s Hill, fighting day in, day out until 28th February, when Dundonald’s Colonial Cavalry, in the gathering twilight, entered Ladysmith, and its gallant defenders were saved after holding out 118 days.
This was the sort of work on which Colonel Byng’s men were constantly engaged during the whole of the war. Under his leadership their record being 27 general engagements and countless minor ones out of all of which they came with an increasing reputation for every quality which goes to make the ideal soldier.
In December 1900, by the addition of a Regiment of Imperial Yeomanry and some guns, Colonel Byng’s command became a column, and in September of the following year he was given the command of a force consisting of his own column and those of Dunlop and Garrett.
With his column he did good work against Kritzinger, particularly at Murraysberg on the 11th January 1901, and in the “drives” in the Orange River Colony. The memory is still fresh in our minds of the joy we felt when, during the time we were trekking and fighting in the Cope Colony, we received the news of the results of the drives, and how Byng had taken many prisoners, and captured many arms, with much ammunition, and on one occasion, a gun.
At the date of his assumption of the control of the larger force, the blockhouse system had largely developed, and he was engaged chiefly in “drives”, and the pursuit of the elusive De Wet. Students of military history will determine for themselves the effect of the part which Byng’s Division had in terminating the war. We of the Tenth will always will think that it was a most potent factor in bringing about the end.
In March 1902 he left South Africa for home to take a leave, never more deserved, after the strain of two and a half years continuous campaigning and hard fighting. During the whole of the period he had that Regiment that he had raised, trained in the art of war as it was needed in the peculiar methods of the Boer War, marched with it, fought with it, shared all its privations, and created for it a reputation of which no regular Regiment could be prouder.
He has been described as the ideal leader of irregular cavalry, whose personality immediately inspires confidence, imparts sanguine optimism, and commands esteem. With the rank and file of the South African Light Horse, composed of members of every English-speaking race under the sun, including not a few Americans, he was not only a leader whom they were ever ready to follow without misgiving, and a Commanding Officer, the justice of whose decision in any question that effected them was accepted, without question, but also a friend to whom they frequently appealed for advise in their private affairs. The regard and esteem in which he was held by his Officers could not be exceeded; one of his most treasured possessions is a handsome silver cigarette box presented by them in which is let a “Queen’s Chocolate Box” inscribed with an expression of their admiration, and a list of many of the more important engagement in which he led them.
He was several times mentioned in despatches, and is in possession of the Queen’s Medal with six clasps, and the King’s Medal with two clasps.
As stated, he took over the command of the Tenth, and rejoined the Regiment in October 1902. At Mhow, early in 1904, he met with an accident whilst playing polo, which perhaps took him home earlier than otherwise might have been the case, but very soon he was entrusted with the formation and inauguration of the Cavalry School at Netheravon, an institution which thus started under the happiest auspices, and which has had such excellent effect on the training and instruction of the Cavalry. We cannot more lucidly describe the difficulties associated with the command and direction of the school when it was started off than by quoting the following extract from an article on it from The White Lancer of October 1907. The author writes “The first Commandant was Colonel Hon. J. Byng of the Tenth Hussars who had the hard job of trying to make bricks without straw, an operation at which he was strangely successful.”
Having launched the Cavalry School on its useful career, after just one year he was appointed to the command of the Second Cavalry Brigade, Eastern Command, and promoted Brigadier General on the 11th May 1905, and on the 1st April 1907 to the First Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot. This command he held until the period of the tenure of his appointment expired on the 10th May 1909. Since that date he has been in retirement. We all anticipate that like Cincinnatus, he will soon be summoned from the repose of unemployment , but unlike the Roman General, he will respond to the call without reluctance, for General Byng is before all else , a soldier.
We have numerous and various proofs of his unceasing interest in all matters pertaining to his old Regiment. Notably the active part he has taken in the formation, on its present basis, of the Old Comrades Association, giving up much of his time he could ill spare, to attend its committee meetings, and offering his valuable advice in matters concerning the affairs of the Association: and the Tenth Hussars Aid Society has to thank him for his efforts in investigating the bona fides of appeals for assistance, whilst many an old soldier owes a deep debt of gratitude to him for opportune aid to himself , or to his family in his hour of need. No deserving Old Tenth Hussar who has fallen upon evil days, is sent empty away, many having been helped and cheered on the way by General Byng, and all will unite in the hope that he will be spared for many years, not doubting that they will be years of usefulness, yielding benefits to all who can claim to have been, or are, Tenth Hussars.
It was not to be expected that he would endure the inactivity of unemployment: hi services are too valuable, his qualities too versatile, and we are not surprised to learn amongst other things, he is now Editor of the Cavalry Journal; an office which would demand the greater part of the time of most men, but he also finds time to devote attention to the Boy
Scouts organisation, of which he is an ardent supporter. With such instructors as he, the movement, which is non-sectarian, non-political, and non-military, cannot fail to be what he describes it: the biggest movement of the Age.
He was promoted to the rank of Major-General on the 1st April 1909, and is Companion of the Order of the Bath, (conferred for services in the South African War.) and a member of the Royal Victorian Order.
In 1902 he married Mary Evelyne, the daughter of the Hon. Richard Morton; Mrs Byng joined the Tenth at Mhow in November of that year. Imbibing the characteristics of the General, who was then our Commanding Officer, she took a keen interest in all that forms part of the feminine world in the Regiment. Anything that could be done, everything that could be devised for the comfort or welfare of the women and children was Mrs Byng’s special study; the thoroughness with which every plan beneficial to the married families was developed and carried out, the weekly assemblage of the women, in a room commodiously furnished, where the making of garments was a speciality, and dainty teas a digression – and many other schemes for alleviating the tedium of the soldier’s wife in India – all was conceived and carried to the stage of success by Mrs Byng in a manner suggesting that she had no other mission in life.
Those of the married roll who still remain convey their acknowledgements for all her kindness , and their best and warm wishes for her welfare and happiness.