Monday, 8 October 2018

That Armoured Train Incident: 15 November, 1899: An analysis of casualties

Before we dive into the casualties the location of the incident needs to accurately stated. The incident is popularily known as "Estcourt" and less so "Chieveley", both in Natal south of Colenso and Ladysmith. The train left Estcourt towards Chieveley, on its return journey it was derailed and ambushed on the farm "Blaauwkrantz", here is the entry form the Gazetteer:

a farm in Natal Colony (Estcourt district; KwaZulu-Natal) on which the village of Chieveley is situated.  Variant: Bloukrans (Afrikaans spelling as used on the 1: 250,000 map).  The armoured train derailment and the capture of 80 prisoners by the Wakkerstroom and Heidelberg commandos, including Mr. W.L.S. Churchill, on 15 November 1899 took place on the farm Blaauwkrantz.  The train was manned by A company 2nd bn Royal Dublin Fusiliers, C company Durban Light Infantry and sailors from HMS Tartar. The area had particular significance for the Boers since the Blaauwkrantz Monument commemorating the voortrekkers killed during the Weenen massacres had been dedicated here only on 16 December 1895.  The incident is referred to by British historians as taking place at Chieveley and Estcourt. 
A Gazetteer of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, Jones HM & MGM (Military Press, Milton Keynes 1999)

The composition of the force on the train is generally stated to be a company (or half company) from the 2nd battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers (A company) and the Durban Light Infantry (C company) and sailors from HMS Tartar manning a 7pdr gun. Although the chief eyewitness, war correspondent Winston Churchill states the sailors were from HMS Terrible (My Early Life, 1930). The train was run by civilian crew and a number of gangers and platelayers accompanied the train. At the time British newspapers reported the force to number between 180-190 men (The Times 18-11-1899).

However, the war correspondent, Bennet Burleigh, gives a detailed account in his book The Natal Campaign (Chapman & Hall, 1900). He gives these figures:

Cpt JAL Haldane, Gordon Highlanders in command
73 - Royal Dublin Fusiliers
47 - Durban Light Infantry (Our Colonials, Stirling, 1907, states 60)
 6 - HMS Tartar
 7 - Platelayers
 1 - Telegraphist
 3 - Engine crew (not given by Burleigh, my estimate: driver, fireman and guard?)
 1 - War correspondent - Winston Churchill

Total: 139

The train was ambushed and partially derailed. The Boers shelled the train and poured in a heavy rifle fire. A stout defense was made but the 7pdr was soon disabled by Boer artillery. The engine and tender remainded on the rails and smashed through boulders placed across the line. The engine and tender returned to Estcourt with a number of men and some wounded.

The Natal Field Force roll lists 47 casualties:

HMS Tartar Dublin Fusiliers Durban LI Gordon H Train Crew War Corres Total
Killed 0 3 0 0 0 0 3
DoW 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Wounded 0 5 12 0 3 0 20
POW 0 22 0 0 0 0 22
POW & Wo 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
Missing & Wo 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Missing 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
Total 0 32 12 0 3 0 47

I have traced a further 49 from the following sources; The Times 18, 19 & 20-11-1899, Army & Navy Gazette 18-11-1899, Sunderland Daily Echo 17 & 18-11-1899, Penrith Observer 21-11-1899The Second Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the South African War (Romer & Mainwaring, 1908). The complete casualty breakdown is now:

HMS Tartar Dublin Fusiliers Durban LI  Gordon   H Colonial Scts Train Crew War Corres Total
Killed 0 3 1 0 0 0 0 4
DoW 0 1 2 0 0 0 0 3
Wounded 0 3 14 0 1 4 0 21
POW 4 33 10 1 0 0 1 50
POW & Wo 0 2 3 0 0 0 0 5
Missing & Wo 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1
Missing 0 4 6 0 0 3 0 13
Total 4 46 37 1 1 7 1 96

The Boers claimed British casulties were four killed, 14 wounded and 56 POWs. The wounded were retained as POWs, an ambulance train sent out by the British to recover the wounded was not allowed to recover any men. Some of the wounded had returned on the engine and tender, and some made their way back on foot.

Interestingly only five men are listed as wounded and POW, there must be some imprecise reporting of casualties amongst the wounded and POW group, not all the wounded would have got away.

Having advanced the known casualties to 96, the question researchers and medal collectors want to know, "who else was there?". The sources I used to get the extra casualties have revealed another twelve names. Disappointingly, Romer's history for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers only mentions Pte 5256 M Kavanagh who was awarded the DCM.

There are though some discrepancies when looking at the medal rolls. According to the medal rolls four men earned the Defence of Ladysmith clasp and yet were named as missing. The siege of Ladysmith began 2 November, 1899, no British troops entered the the town until it's relief on 28 February, 1900. The four are:

Cpl 576 D Brown Durban Light Infantry - The Times, 20 November, 1899 (crushed under a truck 15-11-1899, died 23-12-1899 buried Intombi Camp, Ladysmith)
Pte 689 GB Humphreys Durban Light Infantry -  The Times, 20 November, 1899
Pte 4685 G Reynolds Dublin Fusiliers - Romer & Army & Navy Gazette, 18 November, 1899
Pte 540 AG Woodward Durban Light Infantry - The Times, 20 November, 1899

There is an error somewhere, either the medal roll or the printed casualty list.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

The Royal Patriotic Fund - a rare document

Thanks to lovely exchange off the The Register's Facebook page ("like" us if you haven't, thanks!) I was shown something I've not seen before. A donation slip from the "Patriotic Fund" in remembrance of a soldier who lost his life in the war, very many thanks for permission to publish this image of the donation slip:


Thanks to the National Archives for this information on the "Royal Patriotic Fund". The Fund was set up in 1854 during the Crimean War, Queen Victoria was concerned for the welfare of widows and orphans of deceased serviceman for which niether the Army or government made provision. The Fund was administered by commissioners and financed by public donations. So successful was the Fund it was maintained throughout Queen Victoria's reign. The Commissioners made many grants and even had enough money to create a school for boys and one for girls. After nearly 50 years of work the Commissioners realised that it was not appropriate for the public to fully support widows and orphans. They petitioned parliament to grant pensions to widows, the first pensions to war widows were paid in 1901. 

Gunner 62478 George Read, O battery, Royal Horse Artillery died of dysentery on October 23rd, 1900 at Pretoria. Unusually his service papers survive on FindmyPast, most service papers for soldiers were destroyed. George, born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, first enlisted for the South Staffordshire Rgt in April 1887 but transferred to the Royal Artillery in September.

In  December1893 he married Mary Bayne in Aldershot, just after he had transferred to the Reserve. They had daughters, Hilda and Nellie and a son, Richard George, who was born in April 1899. Richard received a sovereign from the Patriotic Fund. It is not known if every child in the family received a sovereign. Re-called for war service in October 1899 George was not sent overseas until April 1900 when he was posted to O btty RHA. O btty had been involved in the 'Relief of Kimberley' campaign, then onto Johannesburg and Pretoria, and then following the Boer army eastward towards Portuguese East Africa. 

The sovereign the young Richard George would receive was worth £1, today (June 2018) that equals £117, although now Sovereigns are priced on their gold weight so they are worth about £221. George is commemorated on the Royal Artillery Memorial, London, and the memorial for the men of Birmingham in Canon Hill Park. George probably lived there while on the reserves as his wife's address is noted as 27 Flack Terrace, Park Rd, Soho, Birmingham. His widow, Mary, would remarry in 1905, to a Cpl Shipp, from U Btty RHA.

Richard George followed his father's footsteps and joined the RHA age 14, he served in WW2 rising to the rank of Lt Quartermaster. He was captured by the Japanese in Singapore in 1942 and detained in Changi POW Camp. He died in Plumstead, south London in 1946 barely a year after his release from captivity. Richard's emotive Japanese POW Record card is reproduced on FindmyPast (you will need to pay to view it).

Updated 10-06 with more family details.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Hill of Squandered Valour. The Battle of Spion Kop, 1900


Hill of Squandered Valour. The Battle of Spion Kop, 1900
Ron Lock
Casemate Publishers, Newbury & Philadelphia 2011

Spion Kop is a well known battle of the Second Anglo-Boer War because of its intense and bloody nature – over 1300 British casualties in a day on “an acre of massacre”.  The battle was one of Buller's attempt to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith. Spion Kop has been the subject of numerous books and battle field guides – as recently in 2010 and two titles in 2011 alone.

Ron Lock is well known for his work on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and this is his first foray into the Second Anglo-Boer War. The catchy title and cover art work (collecting the wounded after the battle) are reminiscent of his AZW work. The similarities do not end there; in 1996 two reviewers of Lock's Blood on the Painted Mountain about the battles of Hlobane and Khambula criticised Lock for an over long preamble and a lack of research, (see SOTQ March 1996 Issue 84, review article by Huw M Jones and book review by Ian Knight).

In Squandered Valour the Table of Contents reveal an inconsistency with the outward appearance and sales blurb on the book. Of the 13 chapters just one is about Spion Kop - 44 pages. Exactly why 11 chapters are required to get the reader to Spion Kop is a mystery. It would appear Lock had not enough material on Spion Kop itself. The other chapters cover the invasion of Natal and Buller's battles to relieve Ladysmith. However, this book is not the complete story of the Relief of Ladysmith, the key battles of Tugela Heights which were fought over a period of a fortnight are covered in just a couple of pages as the reader is rushed to the final page.

What of the chapter on Spion Kop? This, unfortunately is no tour de force, no concise elucidation of the facts, Lock brings nothing new in research, sources, facts or argument to the story of Spion Kop. His bibliography is painfully thin on Spion Kop sources. Strangely the official British Government record, the Spion Kop Despatches, which has been published numerous times since 1902  is listed under “Unpublished Sources and Private Information”. Lock has has not sought out a history for each unit involved; for instance the South Lancashire Regiment was covered in the excellent Red Roses on the Veldt Lancashire Regiments in the Boer War 1899-1902 (J Downham, Carnegie Publishing, Lancaster 2000). Nothing for the King's Own (Royal Lancaster), Middlesex Regiment or Scottish Rifles. The history of the Imperial Light Infantry (ILI) is admittedly very scarce, but the National Library of South Africa has a copy – Lock lives in Kwazulu-Natal. Even closer to home The Natal Archives contain a number of accounts from survivors of Spion Kop. The personal papers of Colonel A Thorneycroft, one of the key commanders at Spion Kop, have not been consulted, his surname is misspelt throughout as well.

The jacket blurb promises “vivid and complete detail...valuable to both historians and strategists”,  errors and omissions seriously undermine this claim. The “several companies” of the South Lancashire Regiment that attacked Spion Kop were in fact just two ('C' and 'D' companies). Their regimental commander Lt-Colonel MacCarthy O'Leary “survived the battle”, there is no evidence he was present on Spion Kop at all. A new regiment, “the Royal South Lancs” appears on Spion Kop, it may be a confusion between the South Lancashire and King's Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiments. Thorneycrofts MI had 18 officers not “eight” on Spion Kop, in fact the TMI suffered 10 officer casualties on Spion Kop. The complete story of the ILI is missing; two companies were told off to provide an escort to a howitzer that arrived too late, they were sent up Spion Kop ahead of the rest of the regiment). In the confusion on to whether to retreat or reinforce the Somerset Light Infantry were readied to go up and build gun emplacements.

The supplied casualty figures are woefully inadequate and they cover the period 17-24 January, no figures are given for the day of the battle, or even a breakdown by unit. There is no mention at all of any gallantry decorations or Mentions in Despatches for the officers and soldiers who fought on Spion Kop.  This book is intensely disappointing.



Saturday, 19 May 2018

Saved from death by a prayer book - but who?

I recently purchased this postcard because it shows a book and prayer book carried in the "left breast pocket of a Corporal of the R.S.G.....which was the means of saving his life when shot at Greonfontein [sic], Bowkers Spruit, on Dec. 30th, 1901."



Who was this soldier?

In the action at Goenfontein 5 men of the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys) were killed and 13 wounded. No other units suffered casualties, it is possible only the 2nd Dragoons were involved.

Amongst the wounded were a Corporal and a Saddler Corporal. Cpl 4726 WG Griffiths, his service papers survive and record he was wounded in the abdomen. Service papers have not been found for Saddler Cpl 3922 R Scott. However, using the newspaper archive on FindmyPast, a casualty list indicating where each man was wounded was found in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer (4th January 1902).

The newspaper confirms the book and prayer book beloinged to Saddler Corporal Scott, he was wounded in the chest:


I have no record of Saddler Corporal Scott's medal on the market.

For all the men wounded I have added the location of their wound in The Register.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

"...while asleep in the trenches."

Reading through newspapers I found a short story picked off the news wires by many newspapers in Britain filed by the Pretoria correspondent of The Standard in early November 1900:

""Last week a party of fifty Boers surprised the volunteer company of the Berkshire Regiment while asleep in the trenches. The first intimation of the presence of the enemy was when the Boers woke them up and demanded their arms which were surrendered." The officers have been placed under arrest, pending a court martial."

This was a unique event in the war, and very shameful for the British Army. Looking into the casualty rolls the names of these men are not recorded. Fortunately, the Army kept a record of every surrender that occurred as each was inspected to ensure officers and men made every effort to resist the enemy. These records are published as South African Surrenders, War Office 1905, a copy is available at the National Archives under WO108-372.

The incident occurred on October 28, 1900 at Holfontein Siding in the Orange Free State. Such was the scale of the surrender and the circumstances it merited a special account. Holfontein Siding is 30 km south-west of Kroonstad on the line to Bloemfontein.

The volunteer service company commanded by Cpt AF Ewen entrained at Kroonstad with orders to go to Holfontein. On arriving there they were informed by the Commandant, Cpt RE Watt, 1st bn Oxfordshire Light Infantry, to proceed to Holfontein Siding 4 miles further and dig in. Their departed and on arrival his men began digging trenches. The ground was very hard and progress was slow. Patrols were sent out and sentries. In the evening a big storm erupted which did not end until the early hours of the 28th. At 4am a patrol was sent out which shortly returned the news that cavalry were approaching the camp. Cpt Ewen saw the approaching horsemen were dressed in kakhi and wearing slouch hats, when they were about 100 yds they shouted "Hands Up". Ewen could see there were just a handful of his men in the entrenchments and only two had rifles in hand, everyone else was asleep, rifles piled in neat stacks. Faced with an estimated 300-400 Boers he had no choice but to surrender. The volunteers were rounded and marched off to be stripped while others looted the camp removing arms, ammunition, food and anything else they fancied.

From the south an armoured train could be heard which opened fire on the Boers who rode off. Shortly afterwards General TC Porter rode up with his staff, the 3rd Cavalry Brigade were in the neighbourhood.

Ewen was bought before a court-martial on November 20 at Bloemfontein charged with; "that he shamefully delivered up a post to the enemy" and "he was taken prisoner by want of due precaution". The court asked why the men were not stood to at daybreak, Ewen replied he did not think it was necessary. The court found Ewen guilty of the second charge but not the first, the sentence was a severe reprimand and forfeiture of any campaign medal. Lord Roberts approved the court's decision. When the War Office reviewed the case it confirmed the sentence and added that Ewen forfeits his war gratuity. The medal roll shows Ewen was awarded a QSA medal, whether it was recovered is not known.

The names are not probably recorded in the casualty rolls because they were only prisoners for a short period, even though they lost their arms and ammunition. I have added their names to The Register, the medal roll clearly shows the volunteer service company headed by Cpt Ewen's name. There are 130 names (excluding those who died before this incident and Lt WP Alleyne who served as a Railway Staff Officer, Bloemfontein).

Ewen's military career was not unduly upset, he continued to serve in the volunteers and then the Territorial Force before he resigned in 1911. He re-joined for WW1 serving at home as a Major (temporary).









Sunday, 8 April 2018

How Research has advanced - as revealed by one medal

I recently purchased a QSA medal single clasp for "Relief of Ladysmith" to Trooper 1786 FD Hester Natal Police. The dealer supplied verification from the medal roll confirming the single clasp. A nice medal with an unusual single clasp.

Job done?

Of course not. Research is never absolutely, completely done.

Using The Register I looked the recipient up - before purchase of course and discovered that the man was entitled to two further clasps, but more excitingly he served in three other, rather special, units and was captured in a very nasty ambush late in 1902.

When the medal arrived I was surprised and amused to see the medal roll verification came from myself in 2008 that I did for a different dealer. Back in 2008 the medal rolls were not on Ancestry, I was using my own micro-film copy; old fashioned page by page research. The details on the medal led me to page roll 261 page 130 for the Natal Police which confirmed the single clasp and the remark "discharged 26-01-1901". I could not find Hester on an Extra Clasp roll for the Natal Police. To all intents and purposes Trooper Hester's role in the war had ended. Clasp confirmed, research completed.

The Register is a fantastic resource making the most of modern technology - namely the database. Whereas Ancestry's medal roll index is simply a list of names from the rolls, The Register connects all the references to a single recipient in one place. Looking up Trooper 1786 FD Hester Natal Police shows you the gold dust hidden in the rolls and information from casualty rolls and other sources that turns a "nice medal" into a sensational QSA.

Following discharge from the Natal Police in 1901 Hester served as Sgt 6 Utrecht-Vryheid Mounted Police and in Loxton's Horse. In 1902 he enlisted for the Special Squadron, Steinaecker's Horse. All three units were composed of hard men who were intensely disliked by the Boers. Loxton's Horse was a shadowy "loot corps" formed in secret by Lord Kitchener to wage economic warfare on the Boers. Very little is known about Loxton's Horse, only two men appear on the medal rolls under that unit name. I have constructed a history and nominal roll.

Serving with Steinaecker's, on April 16, 1902, Hester was part of a large patrol sent to raid a Boer laager. The laager was empty but Boers were spotted near by, giving chase the patrol followed the Boers into a narrow defile where others Boers poured a heavy fire into them. Six men were killed, 16 wounded and 31 captured. Hester was posted as "missing, rejoined", he may have been captured and released or simply escaped the carnage and made his own back to base.

A terrific story, enough to grace any medal. But, research on his full name, Francis Danby Hester, reveals a Sergeant 4908 Francis Danby Hester 3rd SA Infantry, 1st SA Brigade - missing presumed killed between the 15th-20th July 1916 at Delville Wood on the Somme, France.

Delville Wood is the iconic battle for South African forces in WW1 - huge casualties were suffered as they hung to a chunk of earth defying German efforts to capture the ground. When relieved on July 20 the 1st SA Brigade mustered just 750 out 3153 men - a 76% casualty rate.

Never stop researching.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

British Cavalry: Clasp Rarity

A recent advert on eBay for a QSA to the 6th Dragoon Guards screamed:

RARE CLASP JOHANNESBURG AND 2 BATTLE BARS

Is this true?

Here is a table of clasps awarded to the British cavalry:

Defence of Kimberley 3 0.004%
Defence of Mafeking 11 0.014%
Wepener 11 0.014%
Relief of Mafeking 46 0.059%
Rhodesia 52 0.067%
Modder River 499 0.643%
Belmont 506 0.652%
Talana 536 0.690%
Elandslaagte 604 0.778%
Natal 978 1.260%
Tugela Heights 1629 2.098%
Laings Nek 1702 2.192%
Relief of Ladysmith 1734 2.233%
Wittebergen 1940 2.499%
Defence of Ladysmith 2066 2.661%
Dreifontein 2249 2.897%
Paardeberg 3045 3.922%
Relief of Kimberley 3087 3.976%
Diamond Hill 3565 4.592%
Belfast 3851 4.960%
Johannesburg 4418 5.691%
Transvaal 13212 17.017%
Cape Colony 14468 18.635%
Orange Free State 17426 22.445%
Total Clasps 77638

The most common battle clasp is............."Johannesburg"! The other two clasps on the medal being sold are "Paardeberg" and "Relief of Kimberley" - both scarcer than "Johannesburg", but to which the recipient is not entitled.

The counts for "Cape Colony", "Orange Free State" and "Transvaal" do not include all the men from the cavalry attached to Remount Depots. Not all these men are included in the main roll for their regiments, you could a few hundred for each of these clasps.

From the table overall I excluded a handful of men - usually officers, attached to the cavalry or Staff from British volunteer cavalry units such as the Queen's Own Worcestershire Yeomanry and The Loyal Suffolk Hussars.