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

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
Captain 1 4 1 100 1 1 1
Lieutenant ^ 3 5 3 100
Battery Sergeant-Major 1 3 1 100
1 1
Quartermaster Sergt~ 1 3 2 200
Farrier Sergt~ 1 3 1 100 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
Farrier 4 0 0 0

Saddler 2 0 0 0

Wheeler~ 2 3 2 100

Gunner 76 104 61 80 4 18 21
Driver 59 88 48 80 5 15 20
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

171 266 148 87 14 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, 56 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".


  1. Driver F. Williams, 30,061, of the 66th R.F.A., wrote from Chieveley Camp to his sisters and brothers, and said: "I expect you have heard how my battery got cut up, how the artillery got into a proper hell of fire, and was ordered not to go so far. He saw the mistake when it was too late. How the gunners of the 66th stuck to their guns in it will never be seen again; how they had to leave them when ammunition runs short, how our horses were shot under us, how we tried to save the guns. I was one that drove in one of the two teams of horses that saved two of the guns out of the twelve. Buller praised us for our conduct, and sent Captain Schofield for our names - six of us - and a sergeant has now been promoted from corporal. I can't tell you all that occurred here. I saw some awful sights I don't wish to see again. How some escape is marvellous. I was one of the lucky. I had my things blown into ribbons, and was not hurt. My horses (both) were wounded. We had about 18 left, that was all. We lost all officers save one. He is wounded. It's no capture, this war. They're not fighting blacks now. Out of all of us that went to try and get the guns only seven of us got back without being hurt. I saw lots of us get shot down, but I came out all right, though I thought it was a case with me. But they could not hit me. They knew what we were after when we went for the guns, they all opened fire on us. I could not see the guns for dust that the bullets knocked up when we were at the guns, and no one to help us to limber up. I had to jump out of my saddle to hook the gun on the limber."
    Driver Williams' second letter was to his parents. He wrote: "I am so glad to let you know I am alive. But it's a miracle. I am one of them who fetched the two guns back out of the twelve. But I can't tell you here what I experienced when we fetched them. General Buller has praised us for our conduct, and is going to see into it. It was awful to see it. I expected nothing less than being blown into pieces. All our battery is cut up except a few of us. All the officers and drivers of the other teams that tried to get the guns got cut up. Tell P. Harrison, of Milton-street, that his wife's brother is taken prisoner. Hodgson did his work well. Buller thinks the world of us six drivers. It's rough here, but I won't show the white feather." (Burnley Express, Wednesday 31st January 1900)

    1. Thanks Berenice, Williams was awarded the DCM and I had found a letter from him in the The Monmouthshire Beacon 1900-02-02, which is probably the same as this one. Great detail. Many thanks.

  2. There was a further letter published in the same issue, but it doesn't make for very pleasant reading in part -
    'On the 30th of December Williams wrote home again, and in this missive he tells of being paraded before the troops - an ordeal he did not like, honourable though it was. He says: "I am getting the D.C.M. (distinguished conduct medal) for bravery in the field. I have got the stripes, but they had to force them on me. The sergeant who was in charge is getting the Victoria Cross. I have got shifted again. Buller highly praised us seven. The Boers have a position 40,000 strong here, but we will give them beans yet. They are on the mountains - us poor devils are on the plains below. We have to fight our way up them. I got hold of one Boer and I was mad. He did not know what I meant when I spoke, so I made motions to him to run for his life. So he went, and I galloped after him with the sergeant's sword and cut his head right off his body. Then a lancer went after two that were on one horse, and put his lance right through their backs and whirled them in the air. To see the dead and dying, it was horrible; but I came through without a scratch, and I was in the thick of it. They could not hit me, though they tried. They finished my horses, but there were plenty of spare ones, and I had about ten at the finish. What price parading about 25,000 horse and foot to hear my name read out? They have given me the stripes, but I don't want them."'

    1. Thanks again Berenice. I am not sure I believe the combat description, the only lancers were besieged in Ladysmith. The 66th were not at Elandslaagte where the 5th Lancers were action. Curious.

  3. Gunner H. G. Young D.S.M. had a letter published in a Cumbrian newspaper; as he was writing to his mother in Weymouth, it would seem that it was syndicated.