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 soldiers involved were letter writers and a number were published in the weeks following the incident.

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. They departed and on arrival his men began digging trenches. The ground was very hard and progress was slow. Patrols were sent out and sentries posted. 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 "British Mounted Infantry" were approaching the camp. A number soldiers swore the mounted men were dressed exactly like British MI and rode in formation, the mounted force approached from the east with the dawn light at their back and the soldiers admitted the light was not good. The patrol was captured and the Boer continued to the camp splitting into smaller groups, when they were about 100 yds they shouted "Hands Up". A number of soldiers maintain that Genl Christian de Wet captured them personally at the point of his mauser pistol. Cpt 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 or sheltering trying to get warm, rifles piled in neat stacks. Faced with an estimated 300-400 Boers (soldiers give a figure as high as 800) Ewen had no choice but to surrender. The volunteers were rounded up and marched off to be stripped.

The Boers had stopped a goods train outside the station and were busy looting it. The volunteers lost about a dozen sets of binoculars and a dozen rifles smashed. Very soon, an armoured train could be heard steaming fromthe south and opened fire on the Boers driving them away. Shortly afterwards General TC Porter rode up with his staff, the 3rd Cavalry Brigade were in the neighbourhood.

The volunteers were sent were conducted to Bloemfontein arriving there on November 2 and kept as prisoners overnight. (Windsor & Eton Express 15-12-1900, Oxford Journal 01-12-1900)

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. Ewen's brief account of the affair was published in the Berkshire Chronicle (08-12-1900).

The names are not probably recorded in the casualty rolls because they were only prisoners for a short period. The medal roll clearly shows the volunteer service company headed by Cpt Ewen's name. There are 135 names on the roll. Analysing the roll to exclude those who either died or were invalided prior to 28th October and Lt WP Alleyne who served as a Railway Staff Officer, Bloemfontein, leaves 119 names. Reading contemporary newspaper reports and accounts put the number of men at Holfontein at a maximum of 90. Frustratingly, South African Surrenders does not give a number but only states "The company", Pte 6793 HG Swain states there were 88 men (Oxford Journal 01-12-1900), The Reading Mercury (01-12-1900) states between 80 and 90 from the letters written by soldiers who were there, the letter from an unknown soldier states they numbered 50, but 50 is half a company, and perhaps the writer was simply reinforcing the fact they were heavily outnumbered.

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).

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