Friday 31 March 2023

Battles of the Boer War - who was W Baring Pemberton?

Having recently read this book and been impressed by it's novel approach I wanted to know more about "W Baring Pemberton. The 1972 edition by Pan Books did not have the usual blurb about the author.

Thankfully he was an active member of the community in West Sussex where he lived so I quickly learnt about an erudite man of varied interests. But, the first two-thirds of life were a blank. How could a name like "W Baring Pemberton" not exist in newspapers or even the census?

I stumbled on his birth name, "Noel William Baring Pemberton" - Noel! or Noël - those four letters unlocked his life story.

Noel William Baring Pemberton (left, from Ancestry) was born 13 December 1897 near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. One of six children born to Colonel WW Pemberton and Adele MacDonald. Noel was educated at Wellington College and Oxford University where he read History and Law. Noel married Mary Burder, they would have two sons and a daughter. He passed his Bar Examination for Lincoln’s Inn in October 1935 [The Times 18 October 1935]. He appears to have dropped his first name “Noel” and published as “W Baring Pemberton”.

He does not appear to have pursued a career in law, preferring a career in the arts. In 1932 he was listed as a Director of Flicker Productions with studios at Shepperton, they aimed to produce six “book movies” on “sport and other subjects”. [Kinematograph Weekly 04 February 1932] In 1933 he was credited with adapting a story for the film “Watch Beverley” (rated U). 1936 saw his first history book published, Carteret, The Brilliant failure of the eighteenth century that was well received. A reviewer in Truth [3 June 1936] wrote “This is a book which will probably appeal more to historians than to the general public, for although readable throughout, and is often enlivened by strokes of Mr Pemberton’s dry and incisive wit, it assumes…a knowledge greater than most lay readers are likely to possess.” Encouraged, he produced a biography of Lord North in 1938 “directed at the serious historian and specialist”.

The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted his writing career, in 1940 he took a post at Eton college teaching history. The end of the war bought another chapter, he moved his family to West Sussex living at Morriswood, Holbrook, Horsham and Manor House, Billingshurst. Not forgetting his law training he became a magistrate in Horsham, joined the local Conservative Association. In 1949 he published a biography of William Cobbett. In 1952 his first play “Cactuses and Kings” had its premiere at the Court Royal, Horsham. The play had been written before World War II. Described as a satirical comedy about King Boris who, in league with republicans, agrees to stage a fake revolution forcing him to abdicate and live a comfortable life in retirement with his “beloved cactuses” (sic). [The Stage 7 February 1952] I think he would have enjoyed the irony of his story with the reality the UK has suffered in recent years with the real life Boris. He became Chair of the Theatre Royal Guild & Theatre Club. Just two years later he published a biography of Lord Palmerston in 1954, again well received, “a straightforward, informative, and readable life”.

Noel’s art career expanded to broadcasting and he was regular lecturer to local societies on historical topics. His talents extended to music as an Associate of the Royal College of Music, a “talented pianoforte player” [West Sussex Gazette 1 November 1956] , and painting joining the Association of Sussex Artists. He was also a member of the Circle of Glass Collectors.

1962 saw his first foray into military history with Battles of the Crimean War”, noted for his “considerable research on both published and unpublished sources”. Perhaps, encouraged by this work he became a member of the executive committee of the National Army Museum. Working quickly his second military history work was published in 1964, “Battles of the Boer War”.

Battles of the Boer War” is a slim volume of just 208 pages, not much tree pulp and ink for nearly three years of intense warfare. However, Baring Pemberton’s abilities at distilling information and organising facts is immediately apparent. He has picked just five battles to analyse, not simply recount the dates, movements, names and numbers involved. This is not a re-tread of what you think you know about Belmont, Modder River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop.

He sets out his stall with admirable honesty and intelligence. Admitting he “must tend to be one-sided…. Unfortunately the best Boer accounts have never been translated and I know no Afrikaans.” He ignores “nearly all accounts written by ‘Our Special Correspondent in South Africa’. Except when from the pen of Winston Churchill, these are of little worth and deeply coloured by prejudice. Accepted avidly by a jingoist British public, they passed into common currency where they are still found.” A statement that rings true today for the “history” written by the inheritors of the victory in 1910. A large number of personal papers were read from key actors and witnesses such as Lord Methuen, General Pole-Carew, Hughes-Hallett, Birdwood, Hubert Gough and a host of officers from the artillery and infantry. In seeking balance he also corresponded with people in South Africa. The result is a startling analysis of each battle in three acts; prelude, (in)action, consequences. Criticism is freely offered and the recollections of some, such as Buller, are forcibly rebuked.

Baring Pemberton also earns praise for his treatment of the casus belli, “…it was not as simple as that”. In just a few pages he clearly lays out the complexities of the history, politics, economics and personalities that led to the invasion of the British colonies.

I think this book deserves a wide audience; it won’t break the piggy-bank. The book was re-published in 1969, 1972 and 1975.

W Baring Pemberton died 3 November 1966, not knowing the success of his last book. He led a varied and interesting life and left a lasting legacy. Thank you.

                                                        West Sussex County Times 1954

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Sandy Grieve - the piper of Delville Wood

The story of Sandy Grieve piping the remnants of the South African infantry out of Delville Wood in July 1916 is well known and easily found on the web. Little is given of his military career before World War 1 except for a few brief lines that he had served in the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 and "During the Battle of Magersfontein on the 11th December, 1899, he would not forget the Boers in a hurry, as he was wounded through both his cheeks.". This has been picked up an copied by many:

See also:

This blog will give more detail on Sandy's earlier military career and correct one error that has been simply repeated.

Alexander "Sandy" Grieve was born about 1869 in Largo, Leven, Fife, Scotland. As an 18 year old blacksmith he enlisted into the Royal Highlanders (Black Watch) on 21st November, 1887 at Cupar. He had also worked as a gamekeeper on the Mounie estate. Completing his training he was posted to the 2nd bn on 18th February, 1888 stationed in the UK. In October 1891 he was appointed a piper and later that year after four years service he opted to complete the mandatory 12 year enlistment with "the colours", and not go onto the Reserve as he would have been entitled to do.

He earned a good conduct badge and extra pay in 1889 and 1893, but lost it in June 1894 for a minor, unrecorded,  indiscretion. Between July and August 1894 he was absent for 15 days and when he returned to duty he lost his second good conduct badge and extra pay. He finished 1894 reverting to the rank of Private and he opted to transfer to the Reserve after all. He married and had children.

On the outbreak of war in South Africa he was re-called for active service on 7th October, 1899 and posted back to the 2nd battalion with the rank of Private. The Black Watch, as part of the Highland Brigade were promptly shipped off to South Africa.

The Highland Brigade's first battle was indeed at Magersfontein and we can assume Sandy was there, but, he was not wounded at Magersfontein. Following their mauling at Magersfontein the Highland Brigade did not see action until February 1900 where they helped corral some 4,000 Boer under General Piet Cronje against the Modder River at Paardeberg. They attacked on the 18th February, 1900 crossing the river and enabling troops to get closer to the besieged Boers. It was here at Paardeberg that Grieve was wounded by a bullet that entered the left side of his jaw and exited on the right. Recuperating at hospital he contracted enteric

Sandy was posted back to the Depot in Scotland in June 1900, his war in South Africa was over. He was discharged November 1900 after completing the minimum 12 years service. He was awarded the Queen's South Africa medal with the clasps Cape Colony and Paardeberg. On his return he was feted by his neighbours at Mounie, Oldmeldrum.

Sandy emigrated to South Africa and settled at Heilbron working as a blacksmith. When the 1914 Rebellion broke out Sandy refused to shoe the horses of the rebels and was imprisoned and ordered to be shot. His employer who sympathised with the rebels nonetheless argued for Sandy's release which was achieved in three weeks. Sandy and his two sons volunteered and served in German South-West Africa. At the conclusion of that campaign he volunteered for overseas service. 

According to The Pipes of War Sandy was awarded a DCM in 1918.

Casualty Roll - The Register
Buchan Observer and East Aberdeenshire Advertiser 17 July 1900
Dundee Evening Telegraph 11 November 1915
Dundee Courier 11 November 1915
WO97 Service papers

Saturday 11 March 2023

Casualties - don't simply trust newspapers

A recent post on eBay selling a QSA to Pte 6374 J Cooper, 1st bn Oxfordshire Light Infantry has again highlighted the need to double check a source.

The seller had found a newspaper report listing Pte Cooper has having died at Bloemfontein on 8th December, 1900. The seller notes, "I have been unable to find out any further information on him."

As the compiler of the most correct casualty roll for the war I had to check this out. There is no record on The Register for Pte 6374 J Cooper, 1st bn Oxfordshire Light Infantry. Just to be sure, I re-checked the official casualty roll, the medal roll, Soldier's Effects, Bloemfontein Memorial Wall, no mention of Pte Cooper.

I looked in detail at the news paper report from the Reading Mercury, 15th December, 1900:

There are four names shown, one is false. Pte 5960 W Bennett did not die from disease either, he lived to collect a King's South Africa medal (unfortunately he was killed in 1915). I did a further check on the names inscribed on the memorial wall at Heilbron, Stopp and Merry are mentioned but Bennett is not.

It is possible Pte Cooper's death was misreported, but there is no evidence he lived into 1901 or 1902 - he did not receive clasps for these years, or a King's South Africa medal.

I have not come across very many examples like this, which is good, but all the same the news must have been distressing to family and friends of the soldiers concerned.