Saturday, 4 May 2019

Who was there? 66th battery Royal Field Artillery at Colenso 15th December, 1899

Family historians want to know where their ancestor fought, and medal collectors obtaining a medal to someone involved in a well known action is a popular aim, but how do you know "your man" was there?

The Battle of Colenso on 15th December, 1899 was the third and final British defeat in seven days - christened "Black Week" by the newspapers.

The battle was notable for the loss of four guns from 66th battery and six from 14th battery, despite attempts to recover them under intense fire from the Boers that resulted in multiple casualties. Just two of the original 12 guns that were marooned were recovered. The remaining 10 were abandoned on the field of battle on the orders of the British commander, Major-General Sir Redvers Buller, VC. The loss of the guns, a rare event and embarrassment to the Army. For the Royal Artillery the guns were their Colours - the flags each infantry regiment used to carry into battle. The Colours were defended resolutely and many lives were lost in their defense. Conversely capturing the enemies' Colours was a great and celebrated event.

Darrell Hall's excellent forensic examination of the artillery at Colenso is essential reading to understand the battle.                                                                                                                                                                    Immediately news of the battle and the loss of the guns was telegraphed to the world a row broke out; "Who was responsible?" Buller blamed his chief gunner, Colonel CJ Long for positioning the guns too close to the Boer positions so their fire blasted the gunners from their guns. Others blamed Buller for ordering efforts to recover the guns to be stopped and the guns left as his army retreated from Colenso.                                                                                                                                                                                             In efforts to recover the guns six Victoria Crosses and 22 Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded. One of the VC winners was Lt FHS Roberts, King's Royal Rifle Corps, the only son of Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC, who was given command in South Africa following "Black Week".

Which members of the 66th battery fought at Colenso? Obviously, the one VC and 13 DCM winners and casualties from the battery are confirmed as being present. But, this group is the minority of those who were present at the battle.

Casualties 66th battery
    Officer    NCO       Other        Rank        Total
KIA 1 2 3 6
WO 3 2 10 15
POW 2 4 15 21
Missing 2 2
Total 6 8 30 44

The next source of identification is the clasp qualification on the Queen's South Africa medal. The "Relief of Ladysmith" clasp covers this battle, but also other battles, the qualification date for the clasp is from the 15th December, 1899 to the 28th February, 1900. Therefore soldiers not present at Colenso could be awarded the clasp the same as those present at Colenso, how do you tell them apart?

A total of 266 men are on the roll of the 66th battery with the clasp "Relief of Ladysmith", but the usual complement of a battery was 171 men (from Hall), a contemporary account states there were 165 men in the battery at the battle of Colenso (Act-Bdr 31002 T Stephenson, English Lakes Visitor 20-01-1900). It is clear that about 100 men on the 66th battery roll with the clasp "Relief of Ladysmith" could not have been at the battle. To identify the men who were there from those who were not you need to establish when they joined the battery. A number of men were bought into the battery to make up for its losses at Colenso. This information can be found in the service records.

For each of the 266 men I have looked for service papers and constructed a nominal roll for the battery at Colenso. Each man's entry in The Register will show whether it was likely he served at the battle or not. A summary is shown in the table below:

Rank Establishment (from Hall) Total on Roll Present - 66th btty Percentage of establishment Present Other # Not Present Unknown *
Major  1 2 1 100 1
Captain 1 4 1 100 1 1 1
Lieutenant ^ 3 5 3 100 2
Battery Sergeant-Major 1 3 1 100 1 1
Quartermaster Sergt~ 1 3 2 200 1
Farrier Sergt~ 1 3 1 100 1 1
Sergeant 6 10 6 100 1 3
Bombardier~ 6 15 9 150 3 3
Corporal 6 9 3 50 3 3
Trumpeter 2 4 2 100 1 1
Farrier 4 0 0 0
Saddler 2 0 0 0
Wheeler~ 2 3 2 100 1
Gunner 76 104 61 80 4 18 21
Driver 59 88 46 78 5 15 22
Cpl SS 0 1 1 0
Cpl Collar Maker 0 1 1 0
Bmdr CM 0 3 1 0 1 1
Shoeing-Smith 0 8 6 0 2
171 266 147 86 15 47 57

^ the number of Lieutenants on the roll is unusually inflated by 1 as Lt CStL Hawkes was on the sick list at the time of the battle and his place was taken by Lt GL Butler from the Unattached List.
~ Ranks listed follow Hall, these ranks include trades such as Wheelers and Acting ranks as shown on the medal roll, such as Wheeler QMS and Acting Bombardier
# Present other - with RA Staff or 66th battery's Brigade partners the 7th and 14th batteries
* Unknown - no service papers or papers show no proof

This table shows that 86% of the 66th battery who served at Colenso have been verified as joining the battery prior to the 15th December, 1899. Two men were transferred in just two days prior to the battle. A further 62 who appear on the 66th battery medal roll for the "Relief of Ladysmith" clasp did not serve with the battery on the 15th December. There is a large rump, 57 men, for whom no proof has been found that they served, numerically over half of this group could not have served with the battery at Colenso.

Having established that "your man" was there the next question is "Where was he on the battlefield, what did he do?". Did "your man" try and rescue the guns?

Again, unless he won a gallantry medal this is very difficult to establish. It is believed that all who tried to rescue the guns either received a gallantry medal or were killed in the attempt. However Bombardier 31002 T Stephenson wrote a number of letters home, in one he gives a lengthy account of his unsuccessful attempt to rescue a gun (English Lakes Visitor 20-01-1900). Stephenson did not receive a gallantry award, so his letter raises the possibility others tried to rescue the guns whose names have been lost.

Artillery batteries are very structured, divided into "the guns" and "the ammunition supply". Certain ranks only served in one of those sections; Lieutenants, Sergeants and Bombardiers served on the guns, Corporals were on the ammunition wagons (in the rear). Gunners and Drivers, the most numerous ranks in the battery, served on both the guns and ammunition wagons. 

In Bombardier 31002 T Stephenson's lengthy account he summarises, "Out of 165 men only 91 returned, but half of them were in charge of the baggage." (English Lakes Visitor 20-01-1900) The figure of "91 returned" seems low given that only 44 of the battery were casualties. Stephenson, according to his account, was stranded on the battlefield and made his own way back to camp. Perhaps there were more stragglers like him to add to the "91 returned". From the nature of the fight, the majority of casualties were among the gun crews and not the ammunition wagon crews, as Stephenson remarks, "half of them were in charge of the baggage.". Most Gunners and Drivers who were present but not casualties or gallantry award winners would not have been with the guns but on the ammunition wagons. The experience of the men on the ammunition wagons, well to the rear of the guns themselves - about 800 yards on the day sheltered in the "large donga" was different to those serving the guns exposed to the full force of the Boer fire.

The other evidence showing "he was there" is a letter or account either written by the man or he is named. I have found letters, long and short from three members of the 66th battery:

Shoeing-Smith 25723 AH Butler
Gunner 29487 W Silsby
Acting Bombardier 31002 T Stephenson

No doubt others exist.

This work has uncovered two new casualties; Driver 6302 T Jeffs was, according to his service papers, wounded, Driver 31020 J Williams suffered from chorea, literally "shell shock" when a "shell burst above his head". He is not in the official casualty roll due, I believe that chorea was not regarded as "wound", accordingly I have not included him as a casualty above. Gunner 85109 J Treanor was actually in prison on the 15th December, he is counted as "not present".


Friday, 26 April 2019

Royal Army Medical Corps - casualty analysis

The Royal Army Medical Corps served throughout the war in every theatre. They served on the front line and at all stations back to the hospital ships taking wounded and sick men back to Great Britain.

When I analysed their casualties I was surprised at how few men were battle casualties.

A total of 411 men became casualties, as expected the overwhelmingly majority fell victim to disease, 68%, only 18% were battle casualties.


Total RAMC Casualties (some men had more than one casualty)
Accident
3
Battle
73
Deserted
3
Died*
16
Disease
282
Drowned
7
Miscellaneous
22
Railway
2
Self-inflicted
1
Suicide
2
Total
411



* - Died, cause not known
~ - Miscellaneous, various known; poisoning, during surgery, hepatitis, etc.

Breakdown of Battle Casualties

Killed
10
Died of wounds
10
Missing
9
POW
6
Wounded
38
Total
73

The men of the RAMC were certainly in the firing line. The Corps won five Victoria Crosses – all for tending the wounded under fire,  and 37 DCMs, 14 of these were to the rank of Lance-Sergeant and below and would have been for gallantry in action. Those of  the rank Sergeant and above could equally of have been awarded DCMs for good service in the war as for an act of gallantry.



Monday, 1 April 2019

Lord Roberts' Bodyguard

The military response to the ultimatum issued by the South African Republic lay squarely with Britain. In their wisdom, the War Office, and Britain's generals believed they knew best how to prosecute the war. The local knowledge and military experience, albeit limited but critical, present amongst the residents of the Cape Colony and Natal was largely ignored. Not surprisingly this upset "the colonials" and by then end of 1899, after "Black Week", three towns besieged the New Year looked bleak. The arrogance of the British military establishment was a source of embarrassment.

The War Office realised new blood was needed and they appointed Field Marshal Lord Roberts to replace Major-General Sir R Buller, VC, as Commander-in-Chief. Lord Roberts and his energetic deputy, Lord Kitchener, arrived in Cape Town on January 10th, 1900. They had much work to re-organise and re-energise the battered British forces. Crucially, they realised the contribution "the colonials" could make to future military success.  Roberts authorised further mounted units be raised; Roberts' Horse and Kitchener's Horse. A Colonial Division was formed, commanded by the newly promoted Major-General EY Brabant, a veteran of the Cape's earlier wars. They were to do sterling service, not least in the successful defence of Wepener in April 1900.

Roberts' public relation offensive included a public face, about five days after arriving he asked Major DT Laing to raise a bodyguard composed of selected men from colonial units. Major Laing was a veteran of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders who had settled in southern Africa. he had fought in the conquest of Matabeleland in 1893 and commanded the Belingwe Field Force. Laing understood both the British Army and the colonial fighter.

The initial strength of the Bodyguard was 40 men, enrollments began on January 23rd, by February 1st 40 men had been signed up.

Unit 1st 40 Replacements
Brabant's Horse 5
Canadian Dragoons 0 2
Canadian Mounted Rifles 1 1
Cape Garrison Artillery 1
Cape Town Highlanders 2
District Mounted Rifles 2
Duke Of Edinburgh's Volunteer Rifles 2 2
Imperial Light Horse 1 2
Kaffrarian Rifles 2
Marshall's Horse 2 1
Nesbitt's Horse 1 1
New Zealand Mounted Infantry 0 1
Prince Alfred's Volunteer Guard 3 1
Queensland Mounted Infantry 2
Queenstown Rifle Volunteers 4
Rimington's Guides 3
Robert's Horse 2
No parent unit traced 7 1
Totals 40 12

Those men whose parent unit has not been traced must have had previous military service in southern Africa and be known to Major Laing or recommended by men he trusted. There is very little written about the recruitment of the Bodyguard, what we know has been derived from the medal rolls (WO100) and nominal rolls (WO127).

The Bodyguard obviously accompanied Lord Roberts' on his great march from Orange River Camp to Belfast via Paardeberg, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Diamond Hill. Seventeen also earned the Relief of Kimberley clasp, why they were separated is not known.

On 25th October, 1900 Britain marked the annexation of the South African Republic with a large parade in Pretoria. The Bodyguard were one of four units representing "the colonies". [Dundee Courier 29-10-1900] The St James' Gazette reported on 28th November, 1900 the "Kimberley contingent" left that town by train following an address from the mayor. Their destination was not shown.

In late 1900 Lord Roberts handed over command to Lord Kitchener and left in December. Before he left Roberts asked Major Laing to raise a regiment known as "Commander-in-Chief's Bodyguard". The Bodyguard was dissolved, a few men stayed with the new regiment, the majority returned to their parent units. Over the time the Bodyguard existed a total of 52 men served in the unit, one just for 3 days. Most served into October 1900 when most transfers out began, the last man transferred out was on December 11th. The last man transferred in was on June 14th and he served for six months.

These 52 men earned 25 clasp combinations; the most common clasps are Paardeberg, Driefontein, Johannesburg, Diamond Hill, Belfast and Cape Colony - the clasps awarded Lord Roberts himself. Others to be found are Belmont, Modder River, Relief of Kimberley, Elandslaagte, Relief of Mafeking and Defence of Ladysmith and Wittebergen. These men truly represented the breadth of Colonial service in the war.

For the full list of men who served check this PDF.


The group to MJ Paxton, Kaffrarian Rifles, Cape Colony Cycle Corps and in WW1 3rd SAMR and 8th SA Horse.

The 40th (North Somerset) Company IY also acted as a bodyguard to Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener. They were commanded by a nephew of Lord Roberts, Cpt WM Sherston, DSO. [Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser 04-06-1901, Central Somerset Gazette 27-05-1905]


Saturday, 2 February 2019

Finding "new" casualties

With the digitisation of records from archives ...

Soldier's Effects on Ancestry is very useful aas it often gives the soldier's first name, place and date of enlistment and names of his next of kin which makes genealogical research possible in the absence of service papers. As a rule, service papers for deceased soldiers were destroyed.

I have used Soldier's Effects to find the names of soldiers who died at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, Hampshire in the UK after they had served at the war in South Africa. I extracted a list of names with death dates between 10 October 1899 and 31 December 1902. Then, cross referencing this list with The Register and medals rolls I was able to update existing casualty records; where men had been wounded but not recorded in the casualty rolls as dying, and add new records for men invalided from the war who died at Netley.

Existing casualty records updated - 48
New casualties identified              - 44

These men are included as casualties.

I cross referenced these men against Steve Watt's "In Memoriam" as he lists Netley deaths and there are five net "new" casualties, and seven updates to dates and units compared to that information in Watt .

There was a third category of men who died after the end of the war 31 May 1902 - these are not included as casualties unless they had been wounded or invalided with an illness during the war. Their deaths are recorded in the Biographical Notes section, there are 44 men in this category.

The vast majority of the men identified served in the British Army, however individuals from "colonial" units also found themselves at Netley and some unfortunately died there: British South Africa Police, Cape Medical Staff Corps, Canadian Artillery, Imperial Yeomanry Scouts, Prince of Wales Light Horse, Rand Rifles and Rhodesian Regiment.