My Grandfather's Wars 2

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Our Grandfathers' Wars


By George!  Parallel Lives in the

British Army a Hundred Years Ago


Part III: Early Days and Darkest Hours


by Peter Hunt


George Barnett

He wears the Queen's India Medal, The Queen's and the King's South Africa Medals

and the Long Service and Good Conduct Medals


It is always reassuring to receive feedback on the articles in Despatches.  Knowing that someone, somewhere in cyberspace, is actually reading this stuff is a reward in itself.  Since I wrote Parts I and II of this series I had done some more work on my Grandfather’s military life and had visited the South African battlefields in 2000.  I was thinking about going into print again, when I received a nice email from Mrs Sheelagh le Cocq of Jersey, the Channel Islands.  Like me, Mrs le Cocq never knew her grandfather but she had researched his life through family histories and newspapers.  Like my grandfather, his name was also George and the two men had the same medal groups for their military service, although Mrs le Cocq’s grandfather George Barnett served in the Royal Inniskilling (although the town is Enniskillen) Fusiliers, whilst mine, George Hunt, served in the Devons.  In Part II I related how George Hunt had been besieged in Ladysmith.  George Barnett was one of the men trying to relieve Ladysmith.  Both Georges then went on to fight the Boers on their own ground.  Although neither Mrs le Cocq nor I have any evidence that the two Georges ever met it is clear that their paths crossed several times.  This, as they say, is their story . . .


For a well spent 25 pounds sterling in 1997 I had a researcher get me copies of my Grandfather’s service record and the Devon ’s medal rolls.  These filled in many of the gaps in my knowledge of him, telling me where he was born, what he did before he joined the army, and where and when he served.  Oddly enough on not one of the forms is his birthday recorded.  Clearly the army had no intention of throwing him a little party once a year.  But, since George H was listed as 19 years and 10 months old when he signed up in November 1891, that means he was born in January 1872, in the village of Northam, Devon.  George B was born three months later in Islington, London.


Whilst George Hunt lived with his father, became a groom and also served in the part-time Militia until he joined the Devons when he was nearly 20, George Barnett had a much rougher start to life.  Mrs le Cocq suspects that George may have been born out of wedlock because his father is described as a “bachelor” in a later marriage certificate.  No doubt, since he rose to be a Senior NCO in the British Army, some of the privates that he was responsible for keeping in discipline would have thought that this background was an essential prerequisite for the job!  George’s mother died when he was very young and his father took a new wife who George didn’t get on with.  George later claimed that he had joined the army to escape a “wicked stepmother,” but Mrs le Cocq charitably points out that the poor lady had seven children in as many years, one of whom had died, and raising this brood on a cab driver’s pay would have left Mrs Barnett harassed and exhausted.  When he was 11 George was sent to the Middlesex Industrial School, for continually running away from home.  The Industrial Schools were intended for unruly, but not delinquent or criminal boys, and most lads from these schools entered the army.  Mrs le Cocq doubts if they had much choice.  So, at the age of 14 years and 11 months in 1887, young George Barnett signed on with the 2nd Battalion Inniskillings at Aldershot, committing himself to 12 years’ service.  It is an interesting insight into the physical condition of working class boys in Victorian London that George’s medical record shows the nearly 15 year old to have been 4feet, 6 ½ inches tall and weighed only 77 pounds.  


A Victorian Band Boy similar to George Barnett


At his age George Barnett would have been a band boy, playing the bugle, drums and, because this was an Irish Regiment, especially the fife.  We know that George could play the trombone before he entered the army so it is highly probable that he was in the Regiment’s band when they marched past Queen Victoria at her Jubilee Review in July 1887.  This was the easy sort of soldiering that Kipling alluded to when he wrote:


“You may talk o’ gin and beer

 when you’re quartered safe out ’ere,

                 An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it,”


but by the end of the following year George was on a troopship bound for India where he would have plenty of opportunity to practice the band boys’ secondary duty ~ they were stretcher bearers.


On a personal note I thought that the Orient was amazing when I arrived in Hong Kong at the ripe old age of 22.  You really have to wonder what the 16-year-old George Barnett thought of it all when he stepped ashore in Bombay in January 1889.  He probably didn’t have much time to think.  The battalion quickly moved to its station at Secunderabad and, after nearly three years there, moved on to the even more exotic Burma where it spent the next four years.  By this time Private George Hunt of the Devons was catching up.  He arrived in India in December 1892, two months after his namesake had moved to Burma.  By this time George Barnett would also have become a fully-fledged infantryman.


The two George’s first campaign together came in 1897 in the Tirah, which is related in Part I of this series.  The Devons were in the main assault force under General Lockhart, whilst the Inniskillings covered the flanks as part of the “Peshawar Mobile Column,” based on Fort Bara.  Here, according to their historian, they longed “to be more actively employed than in the necessary but uninteresting duties of road making and fortifying the camp.”   Their chance came when Lockhart’s regiments withdrew and the Peshawar Column had to advance to save the hard-pressed rearguard.  This operation was a classic example of mountain warfare.  The Inniskillings and their sister battalions from the Peshawar Column entered the hills and, passing through each other in succession secured the heights for the rearguard to pass through to safety.  After being pursued by fanatic Afridis for five days and nights the Scots, Sikhs and Gurkhas of the rearguard must have been rather pleased to see the Irishmen, and Londoners, of the Inniskillings.  The interesting thing of course is that probably none of the English, Irish, Scottish, Indian or Nepali brothers-in-arms who bivouacked at Barkai on 14th December 1897 gave a moment’s thought to what an amazingly diverse, but perhaps wonderful, Imperial army they composed.


George Hunt’s enlistment papers are full of small print.  Whilst, theoretically, he signed on for seven years active duty, “with the colours”, and five in the reserve, the sub-clauses provided that, if the active service was overseas it could be extended by one year.  And if a state of war existed then, by yet another year.  And if “by a proclamation from Her Majesty in case of imminent national danger” then all the service could be active, and it could be extended for yet another year!  My Grandfather fell foul of every one of these clauses.  In December 1898 he was overseas in India and in December 1899 definitely at war in South Africa.  I don’t know if this bothered him unduly, but as an old soldier he had a right to grumble and I’m sure his contractual obligations gave him lots to grumble about.  George Barnett probably wasn’t grumbling about conditions of service.  At some point he had decided that the Army was the life for him.  He had signed on again and by 1899 had been promoted to Sergeant.  


A private in marching order on the NW Frontier.

The Devons wore the same kit in South Africa.


The Devons and George Hunt arrived in South Africa on 21st September 1899 and in Part II I have related how they soon found themselves besieged in Ladysmith. George Barnett had been back in England on leave when war broke out.  He was drafted into the 1st Battalion Inniskillings and arrived in Cape Town on 30th November 1899 as part of Buller’s Army Corps which was charged with breaking the Boer line on the Tugela River and relieving Ladysmith, and my Grandfather.


Buller’s first attempt at breaking through was at the Battle of Colenso on 15th December 1899.  The Boers, 4,500 strong under probably their best commander, Louis Botha, were dug in on the north bank of the Tugela.  Unfortunately for the British, Buller had no real idea where they were.  His maps were wrong and this had not been revealed by careful reconnaissance.  Buller had 15,000 men in five brigades.  Two, (which included the 2nd Battalion of the Devons, trying to relieve their 1st Battalion in Ladysmith) were to remain in reserve, one was to attack on the right and one was to make a frontal attack on the bridge across the river.  The other, the Irish Brigade under the command of Major General Arthur Fitzroy Hart, including the Inniskillings, was the left prong of the attack.  Hart was ordered to cross the Tugela where it made a 300-degree loop at “Bridle Drift [ford], immediately west of the junction of Doornkoop Spruit [stream], and the Tugela.”   The maps showed the junction to be upstream of the loop whereas in reality it was downstream of it.  Thus the British thought that they would be crossing a drift at the outside of the 7 o’clock position on the loop when the drift they really wanted was at the inside of the 4 o’clock position.  Matters were made worse because their African guide thought that they wanted to cross a drift at the 12 o’clock position, and because the approach march was conducted in the pre-dawn darkness.


Hart’s nickname was “General No-Bobs” a direct and simple reference to the fact that he never ducked when bullets and shells passed overhead, but also perhaps an indirect and cleverer reference to the fact that he was certainly not a thinking general like Lord Roberts, the other “Bobs”.  He had a fondness for foot drill and kept his brigade in close formation.  Even when obliged to put them in extended order he sent out markers first to ensure that the extended order was nice and neat too!  Personally he was absolutely fearless, almost to the exclusion of common sense.  But his main problem as a commander was that he expected everybody in his brigade to be absolutely fearless almost to the exclusion of common sense too.


The ground in the "Loop".  The trees roughly mark the river.  The Boers were in the kopjes behind.


During the approach Hart was informed three times by his cavalry scouts that there were enemy on his left, where they shouldn’t have been, but he chose to ignore the scouts.  When he hit the western base of the loop he realized that the map had misled him but, since his guide insisted that the drift was straight ahead, he ordered the Brigade forward.  Dawn found them tightly packed inside the loop.  The ground is dead flat and since the river cuts deeply into the plain its exact position cannot be determined until you are almost right on top of the banks.  Hart, the Inniskillings and George Barnett had the river on three sides and Boer marksmen and artillery concealed in the kopjes beyond the river to their left and front.  The result was a massacre.  A soldier in one of the Inniskillings’ sister regiments in the brigade, the Dublin Fusiliers, described it thus:


“For hours, around these gallant lads, the shot like hailstones fell,

And many a bullet found its mark in that infernal hell;

With sad downcast face we heard the order to retire,

The position was too strong to take beneath that falling fire . . .

Then here’s to the gallant Dublins, and the brave old Connaughts too,

The Border lads undaunted, and the Inniskillings true,

Side by side, they fought and died, each man beside his “pal”,

Fighting for England ’s honour on the border of Natal.”


The rest of the battle was little better from the British point of view.  The attack on the bridge was suicidal and when two batteries of British guns advanced to support it they came into easy rifle range of the Boers, were devastated by Mauser fire, ran out of ammunition and had 10 guns captured.  To add further insult to the injury of the British Army that day, two companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Devons did not receive the order to retreat and were overwhelmed, taking 102 casualties and losing 36 prisoners, including the battalion’s colonel. 


In total 1,139 of Buller’s men were killed, wounded or captured at Colenso, and 553 of those casualties were from Hart’s Irish Brigade.  Today the dead lie in a well-tended cemetery inside the loop.  The fatal kopjes look down in the distance, and across the billiard table flat ground of the loop you still can’t see the river.  This is a site that should be visited by every army officer to drum home the maxim: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted”.


The Irish Brigade cemetery


Uncharacteristically Buller tried to shift the blame for the defeat.  “I was sold by a gunner”, he complained, although the gunners certainly had no responsibility for Hart’s disaster.  Buller anguished for three days about sacking Hart but eventually decided against this.  Hart could not understand what all the fuss was about.  He put his failure down to his soldiers going the ground but he himself “took a cheerful view of it, ascribed it to first experiences under fire, and said they would do much better next time”.  Botha’s view of George Barnett and his comrades was higher than their own general’s: “I must say that I never saw anything more magnificent than their charges at this point . . . no less than five times they charged, and I never want to see finer bravery than I saw there” he wrote.  And, characteristically, Botha made no attempt to take great credit for his opponent’s mistakes.  He simply wrote to President Kruger: “The Lord of our fathers has today given us a brilliant victory”.


On 11th January 1900 Buller moved west to attempt to outflank the Boer line.  The promising chance of a cavalry breakthrough was thrown away and by January 20th it was decided that another infantry assault was necessary.  The attack was directed at a hill called Taba Nyama and once again Hart’s Irish Brigade, reinforced this time by two Lancashire battalions, led the attack.  Hart thought that his brigade had done well because it reached the crest of the hill, only to discover that it was a false crest and that the ridge of the hill was still 1,000 yards away, where the Boers were waiting with a clear field of fire.  Writing after the war, under a pseudonym because he was still a serving officer and he didn’t pull his punches about what he saw, a Lieutenant-Colonel Grant described Hart’s response:


“There is nothing apologetic or doubtful about General Hart to start with, [a] gallant fiery Irishman, too hot with the ignis sacer [holy fire] of fighting to see anything ridiculous in a sword angrily brandished at an enemy a thousand yards away . . . Where will British privates not rush at the word of command?  [A]nd, in the name of pity, why are such commands given?”


Certainly the likes of George Barnett and his comrades did not question Hart’s ridiculous gesturing.  Grant relates what happens next:


 “The artillery preparation was mere form.  There was a hasty bang, bang, bang from the artillery . . . and up from the shadows burst the Irish and North-Countymen with a typhoon of yells and a momentum that nothing but death could stop.  But death was there: a tremendous fire broke out from the ridge . . . The foremost men fell in heaps, the rearmost were stopped, as all should have been stopped, at the crestline.  ‘Thus far, and no further,’ sang the Mausers.”


Hart’s brigade had lost 365 casualties, mostly, noted Winston Churchill, from the Lancashire Regiments and the Dublin Fusiliers.  By this time the “Dubs” were down to 50% strength. But the Inniskillings couldn’t have been much better off.  The battle was renewed the next day and the British made some gains, but by the evening of the 22nd, by which time another 195 casualties had been suffered, it was clear that they could not break through.  At a council-of-war the British commanders considered three possibilities: a night assault on the ridge, which Churchill considered “would involve great slaughter and a terrible risk”, an ignominious retreat, or to outflank Taba Nyama by taking the higher hill next to it . . . Spion Kop.  


On the horizon: Taba Nyama (left), Spion Kop (centre) and Twin Peaks (right)

seen from the British side of the Tugela


The Battle of Spion Kop on 23rd/24th January 1900 centred on attempts to take and hold the 1,460 metre high kop.  The Inniskillings remained on Taba Nyama, so I will not go into great detail.  But it is important to note that this was a battle of wills.  Both sides thought they had lost.  Both sides were right.  Both sides retreated from the top of the kop.  Only Louis Botha wouldn’t give up and, throwing in his last reserve on the morning of the 25th, the Boers found only British stretcher bearers collecting wounded and dead on top of the hill.  The Boer will had triumphed.


Two weeks later Buller tried, and failed, again at the Battle of Vaalkrans, just east of Spion Kop.  Again the Inniskillings were not heavily engaged so I will not go into details but the important thing to note is that what a fine instrument of war men like Sergeant Barnett made for General Buller.  They took their setbacks on the chin; didn’t lose faith in their commanders, (although Buller must have sorely tested this faith when it came to his tactical ability, but I believe that the troops really appreciated his genuine care for them and they repaid this) and kept going forward.  Three significant defeats in six weeks would have knocked the stuffing out of most armies.


Whilst George Barnett was suffering south of the Tugela what of George Hunt in Ladysmith?  The main events of the Siege have been related in Part II, but in 2004 the Naval and Military Press republished the “Regimental History of the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment during the Boer War” by Colonel M. Jacson which contains many little sidelights on the siege life of George and his comrades.  For instance:


9th November 1899:  First Boer attack beaten off.  “This lasted until about 2 p.m., when the action was concluded with a royal salute from the naval batteries and three hearty cheers which, started by the Naval Brigade, were taken up all round the defences in Honour of the birthday of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.  A curious ending to a battle.”  Curious indeed.  I hope that Bertie appreciated what splendid chaps he had fighting for him.  


One of the Boer 'Long Toms' that usually made Private Hunt's life a misery,

but occasionally fired liquorice


1st January 1900: In addition to firing 1½ tons of real shells into the town the Boers fired one “engraved on it 'Compliments of the Season', . . . [containing] a busting charge of liquorice in place of melanite . . . [a]nother blind shell picked up was full of sweetmeats.”


Ladysmith Town Hall.  Private Hunt sat outside whilst Sgt Barnett marched past


1st January, 1900: “Messages of good wishes to the garrison were received from Her Majesty, from Sir Redvers Buller, and from the soldiers, sailors and civilians of Hong Kong .”  That was nice of us, wasn’t it?


9th-10th January 1900:  The British use star shell to illuminate a night attack.  The Boers had never seen them before and were: ". . . hugely elated at the sight . . . They turned their searchlight on to the stars . . . and cheered lustily.  They evidently considered that it was a special performance got up for their entertainment . . .”


31st January 1900:  “horse-flesh was issued for the first time as a ration.”


3rd February1900:  “a decoction called 'chervil' [a pun on the popular beef essence 'Bovril'] was issued to the men.  It was supplied by the 18th Hussars’ horses, whose bodies were boiled down for the purpose.  It was nourishing and the men liked it, which was a good thing.  There was nothing else by which to recommend it.  The men were also allowed to go down to the chervil factory . . . and buy the horseflesh after it had passed through the boiling process.  This did not appear appetizing, but again the men liked it . . .”  My emphasis.


Another odd thing about the siege was that both side’s signalers chatted with each other.  A sort of fraternization with the enemy by heliograph.  When news of the new diet got out the Boers signaled: “How do you like horse-meat?”  The British flashed back: “Fine.  When the horses are finished we are going to eat Boer.”


Lest all this sound too jolly, by the end of February starvation was a real threat for the garrison and disease was knocking them down.  There were 13,500 men in Ladysmith and over 10,500 admissions to hospital over the three months of the siege.  Despite the 'stiff upper lip' the strain was telling and 'reading between the lines' of Jacson’s account we find that even strongly held fundamentals that had probably never even been thought about before, were being questioned:


4th February 1900:  News received that Buller “was to be expected shortly, and . . . that . . . Ladysmith was to be attacked again next morning by 10,000 Boers.  Arrangements were made to meet the latter, the arrival of the former being considered hypothetical.”  My emphasis.


13th February 1900: “Divine Service …  The usual 'extermination' service and prayers for the 'Right' were said, the hymns chosen being:

There is a blessed home

Beyond this land of woe;


There is a greenhill far away,

Sung sadly to the accompaniment of Buller’s guns.”


The reason why the Devons could hear Buller’s guns was because on 12th February 1900 he tried again to break through to Ladysmith.  Although George Hunt in the garrison, and George Barnett in the relieving force had suffered so much, so far, both still had more dark hours to go through before the dawn.  


The Devons' memorial at Platrand, Ladysmith


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