Friday, 30 November 2018

The grave under a railway station

CWGC records the location of a British soldier's grave under a railway station with the marker on the platform. This odd location is in Ogies,  Mpumalanga - to the east of Johannesburg. CWGC gives no further details on the identity of the dead soldier.

The grave marker and its location are photographed on BoerenBrit.com, they relate a story behind the grave taken from Anecdotes of the Anglo Boer War by Rob Milne (Helion 2000). In February 1902 this area was open veld and in a clash between the Bethal Commando and Colonel E.C. Knox’s column a Trooper Bryant, 26th Mounted Infantry was killed on February 1st and buried where he fell. The metal cross came after the war. Later, after the war had ended a coal mine was started and the area developed. The new railway and railway station was built over Bryant's grave. Currently the grave is covered by the men's toilets and the grave marker moved to a platform sitting in false grave plot.

The problem with this story is identifying the soldier in the grave. Using the Advanced Search function on The Register you can easily see the number of men with the surname Bryant who were casualties in 1902; there are just three:

Looking at each; G Bryant was killed in April, J Bryant, Connaught Rangers was captured. The only candidate is Pte 5241 J Bryant, Somerset Light Infantry and 26th Mounted Infantry. But, he died of enteric on February 3rd at Sturman's Ranges some 200km to the south-east near Wakkerstroom. He now lies buried in a concentration cemetery at Wakkerstroom. And, the grave marker shows "Pte J Bryant 26th Mounted Infantry", the service number appears to be '3524'.

No Bryant with this number or a variation on can be traced on the medal rolls, service papers, Soldier's Effects and newspapers.

The other problem with this anecdote is that Colonel E.C. Knox died of pneumonia in London on February 18th, 1902. He could not have been in South Africa on the day this mysterious soldier was killed.

Something is wrong.

Friday, 9 November 2018

A burial in Table Bay, Cape Town

This remarkable story came from a thread on the Anglo Boer War forum discussing deaths at sea. The story is from Captain JC Robinson, master of the troopship Kildonan Castle, whose articles have been published in To the Sea in Ships, Royd Press 2013.

Captain Robinson describes how an unnamed soldier who died while the ship was anchored in Table Bay. The descision was taken to bury him at sea rather rather onshore. Using the The Register, I have identified the most likely soldier as Pte 4020 J Taylor 4th bn West Yorkshire Rgt. His entry in Deaths At Sea on FindmyPast shows he died at 6:30am in Cape Town from the effects of pneumonia. There is no latitude and longitude recorded which is normal for deaths truly occuring "at sea".

"I was in the Kildonan Castle, H.M. Transport No. 44. We arrived in Table Bay one morning about six o’clock, with 2600 troops on board, the weather being very hazy, and the Bay crowded with vessels of all descriptions. I counted 70 myself, but there were more. We anchored off Moulle Point and signalled our arrival. One poor fellow, a soldier, died after we brought up — the only one we lost during the voyage. The Port boat came off after breakfast, blowing his fog-horn, because it was getting very thick. Having received pratique, I reported the death, and requested that arrangements should at once be made to land the body for burial. This was agreed to as necessary, and the launch returned to attend to the business.

 By the time he reached the dock the fog had closed down dense and white as milk, so that we could not see our own funnels 50 ft. away. The chorus of ship’s bells near and far in the calm, fog-bound bay was quite remarkable, and continued for three days and three nights without intermission!

We waited patiently for the return of the launch, keeping our ears open for any indication, but all in vain. The third morning the surgeon and commanding officer came to me and asked what was to be done? After anxious consultation it was decided that we must bury at sea.

It goes without saying that I dare not move the ship, so the “office” must be performed by means of a lifeboat. Let it be understood, first of all, that no “committal” must take place inside of 15 fathoms, and we were anchored in 8. A chart of the bay and approaches was laid out, and a position marked upon it with a cross upon it for the “launch.” The course from ship to the cross was laid off, and the distance measured. The lifeboat was fitted with a compass, and a patent log, as well as the chart, and a lead line. A special signal by foghorn was fixed upon, which was to be sounded every half minute exactly from the start until the return of the party. The second officer and boat’s crew who were to go, accompanied by t wo military officers, were put through a rehearsal of the programme.

The body was duly placed in the boat, and the funeral service was conducted on board immediately above; and as the firing party and the buglers made their “salute,” and sounded the “Last Post” on the forecastle head, the ambassadors of death departed on their mournful mission. They were immediately lost to sight; even alongside the ship they had been but dimly visible from the deck, but the regular splash of the oars continued audible for a long time in the breathless calm that prevailed, and gradually died away into silence.

Our prearranged signal was religiously observed, and a tense and dramatic quietness pervaded the whole ship during the interval of sound. I confess that I was extremely anxious myself. The conditions were so unprecedented. I knew that every human precaution had been taken, and that we had only done what was right and necessary; but the minutes dragged along with leaden measure — five, ten, twenty, forty! Hearts were thumping painfully; every ear was strained to the uttermost. A solitary boat, with nine men and a corpse, shut out from all audible or visible connection with a living world, upon a formless waste of secret waters! The mind conjured up all kinds of horrible possibilities.

Whispers here and there - listen - I think - I think - I’m sure - hush - it’s fancy - no - don’t you hear? I do - Yes! - and at last! After forty-five long-drawn minutes we did faintly hear that welcome rhythm as it gradually became audible to all — and a spontaneous cheer went up from 2000 throats that must have encouraged the still invisible members of that devoted band to a realisation of safety and renewed effort. What a great relief it was to us all when we received them safely on board!

On questioning the second officer (whose name I cannot recall, I am sorry to say, though himself I remember perfectly) it would appear that we were not alone in conjuring up weird fancies. When they had reverently committed the body to its watery grave, it seemed for a moment to stand up in the fog and look at them; and though they pulled away manfully,-the impression remained that they were glued to the spot unable to get clear of the dread vision, until they picked up the sound of our special signal, and heard the cheers of the soldiers on board. “Pray never send me away on such a duty again,” he added; “I would almost rather Ire buried myself!”

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Trouble on St Helena: 1st bn West India Regiment


Two companies of the 1st bn West India Regiment arrived on St Helena on September 4, 1900 to be part of the garrison. Britain maintained a small garrison on the island but during the war the garrison was increased to guard the Boer POWs sent there. The 3rd bn West India Rgt was previously on the island. Their drum and fife band played the Boer General P Cronje and his fellow POWs into their prison camp. [https://www.napoleon.org/en/history-of-the-two-empires/articles/saint-helena-prison-island/]

Trouble broke out in the evening of New Year’s Day with fighting between sailors from HMS Thetis and West Indian Rgt soldiers. One of the West Indians was badly injured and sent to hospital. The following evening sailors from HMS Thetis gave a concert in aid of a local charity. A party of West Indian soldiers armed with “clubs and razors tied to sticks….raided the town”. Civilians, including women and children were injured, a man had his skull broken. Twelve sailors were injured “more or less seriously”. The West Indians were joined by more of their comrades who broke out of barracks. There ensued a chaotic night with their officers failing to get the men back to barracks as they rampaged around. The Soldiers and Sailors Rest Home was attacked “and broke the doors and windows to atoms”.

The next day the West Indians were ordered away from the town to Broad Bottom camp which wasn’t at this time occupied by POWs, they refused threatening to blow up houses in the town. Detachments from the Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery and HMS Thetis patrolled the town. On January 3rd a company of the Gloucester Rgt was bought up from Broad Bottom. Once more the West Indians were ordered out of the town, backed up by the threat they would be fired on if they didn’t. The West Indians relented and marched at once to Broad Bottom, “The whole place is in a state of alarm lest they carry out their threats to make a raid, and precautionary steps are being taken.”  Conductor FJ White, Army Service Corps, wrote:

“..it is no joke to feel that you are likely to be struck across the face with a razor tied to a stick, or knocked on the head by a big stick..it was hardly safe to be out unless [you] were armed.. ” [Surrey Mirror 05 March 1901]

The West Indians remained at Broad Bottom until transport to take them off the island could be arranged. The two companies left the island on January 13, 1901 for Sierra Leone. [East Anglian Daily Times 31 January 1901, Surrey Mirror 05 March 1901]

The issue was raised in Parliament in March 1901 by Mr J Dillon (Mayo East). In reply, the Secretary of State for War, W Brodrick, stated that no women or children were injured and five not 12 sailors were injured, “Nothing is known of any threat to blow up the town”. The numbers involved was not stated but it appears to have been a minority rather the whole detachment involved in the disorder. When the companies arrived on St Helena 15 men were tried by court martial; six convicted and sentenced to imprisonment from six weeks to six months, seven were acquitted and two were still in hospital too ill to stand trial. Mr Dillon then asked:

“With this experience will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that these regiments of coloured troops will not be moved into the more civilised portions of the Empire?

Mr Brodrick refused, and in April two companies from the 3rd bn returned to the island.

[HC Deb 07 March 1901 vol 90 cc794-5 https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1901/mar/07/west-indian-troops-at-st-helena#S4V0090P0_19010307_HOC_89]

Following the trouble there was correspondence between the War Office and Lord Kitchener, C in C South African Field Force under whose command came the troops on St Helena.  Replying to the War Office on December 10, 1901 Lord Kitchener wrote:

“I do not recommend the 2 companies of the 1st battalion, West India Regiment, for the Medal, in view of the circumstances of the removal of these 2 companies from St. Helena.” (WO100/287p381)

The War Office informed the 1st bn that the detachment would not receive the QSA medal. (WO100/287p383) In March 1902 Lieutenant-Colonel AL, commanding the 1st bn sent a nominal roll (in triplicate) to the War Office of the men of the 1st bn stationed on St Helena between September 4, 1900 and January 13, 1901.  (WO100/287p382) This roll is preserved in the medal rolls WO100/287 pp387-388. There are 183 names on the roll, ordered by rank and surname. The final name on the roll is Private 309 A Ricketts, the list could be incomplete, it seems odd no other surnames are recorded beyond the letter “R”.

A question for medal collectors is, can one get a medal to any of these men? The answer is “Yes”, of the 183 men listed, 124 earned an East & West Africa 1887-1900 medal:

Clasp
Number
Sierra Leone 1898-99
116
Sierra Leone 1898-99 & 1892
3
Sierra Leone 1898-99 & 1897-98
5
Total
124

Additionally, Corporal 859 T Padmore earned the Ashanti Star 1896.

No officers are recorded in the medal rolls for the 1st bn on St Helena, they didn’t get their medals but remain anonymous. Three officers of the 1st bn received QSAs for service in South Africa: Major HA Hill (attached Royal Scots Fusiliers), 2nd LT JH Forshaw (attached 3rd bn East Lancashire Rgt), Lt A Peel (previously Cpl 5423 2nd bn King’s Shropshire LI).