Thursday 9 January 2020

Who was Magersfontein's 'Young Unknown Scottish Bugler'? Part II

An article with this title was published in the South African Military History journal in December 1979, you can read the full article here.

This blog, the "Part II", brings the story up to date using information not available to the author, Fiona Barbour, in 1979. I will also show how this soldier has been erroneously turned into a romantic fictional character in more recent years.

The premise of the original article was to identify an unknown Scottish bugler who died at the battle of Magersfontein, December 11, 1899. After the battle the soldiers were buried largely where they fell, there were 20 burial sites. In 1905 the British dead were concentrated into one grave site. It was not until 1931, when the Burgher Monument was erected, that the Boer (and Scandinavian) dead were consolidated. One grave stone, erected in 1963, at the Burgher Monument stood out, the inscription read "In Memory of a Young Unknown Scottish Bugler...". It is presumed this stone replaced one made earlier, this first grave stone is lost. In 1969 the grave was given a new stone:

The 1969 stone, photographed in 2020. Courtesy Phil Gibson
By a process of deduction Fiona Barbour concluded that the most likely candidate for this grave was Drummer 3543 W Milne, 2 battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders. The official casualty roll records him as "Missing - Court of Enquiry states killed" at Magersfontein on December 11, 1899. The headstone records he was wounded and buried by the Boers. This would explain why Milne was posted as "Missing" by the British - they had not recovered and buried his body after the battle.

The "traditional" story on the Boer side is that "a young bugler", badly wounded, was taken by the Boers to their hospital where he died. He was buried with the other Boer dead, and presumably his grave was marked. Other British dead who died in Boer hands were found when the consolidation occurred.

Satisfied, Barbour concludes the article, but notes that Milne's age was not known at the time; even "the Regiment was unable to give me" his age. Some may be surprised the regiment does not know about its own soldiers. However, we now know that many regiments do not hold biographical details. Any attestation books they may have kept were destroyed in a fit of housekeeping or sent to a central archive, such as the National Army Museum or The National Archives. The service papers we know and love could, in 1979, only be searched manually at the The National Archives. Thanks to digitisation we know no papers survive for Milne, as is common for fatalities.

In recent years the 'Young Unknown Scottish Bugler' has in certain circles transformed into "The little Drummer Boy of Magersfontein." Working under the misapprehension that all Drummers in the British Army were "boys" (children) Milne is stated to be aged 15. In 1979 Barbour called this notion "a romantic nonsense". And, history tells us that it is indeed untrue; Drummers, Buglers and Trumpeters may well have once been boys, but they grew up into young men retaining their rank and role. Research from The Register shows 148 Drummers, Trumpeters and Buglers died during the war. The age is known for eight; the eldest was 32, the youngest 16, the average age 21.6. More research will add more data to improve the quality of the result. But,this further proves the  "a romantic nonsense" of the "little drummer boy".

However advances in research material allow us to make an educated guess at Milne's age from the work by Paul Nixon on Army Service Numbers. Milne's service number, 3543, was allocated between January 1891 and May 1892. A search of the British Newspaper Archive found a report in The Scotsman (December 18, 1899)  relating to casualties at Magersfontein supplied by the regiment that "Drummer W Milne, Edinburgh; enlisted March 1891". Between 1899 and 1979 the relevant source the regiment had as to his age seems to have disappeared.

With an enlistment date of March 1891 and assuming an enlistment age between 14 and 18 (he might have been older), Milne was between 22 and 26 years old when he died.

If Milne is the 'Young Unknown Scottish Bugler', and the evidence is strong then he was definitely not the romanticised "little drummer boy" as some would like to make out.

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