My Grandfather's Wars
by Peter Hunt
You would think that after a hard winter's campaigning on the North West Frontier my Granddad would be looking forward to some well-earned rest and recuperation. Unfortunately there was not much of this for British Other Ranks in the sub-continent. The "BORs" were warned "not to go down to the brothels, to wear a pith helmet or a topee at all times during the day and not to drink water outside the cantonment". The army meant it. The punishment for being found without said hat was 14 days fatigues so the potential downside of getting caught partaking of a bit of "jig a jig" was no laughing matter.
Charles Allen records cases of BORs who didn't speak to a woman for their entire tour in India - five to nine years! White women were completely out of the question. The Viceroy's wife, Lady Curzon was on record as saying that the ugliest things in India were the water buffalo and the BOR. What the BORs thought of Lady Curzon has not been recorded. One would like to think that, knowing she was American, they made allowances for her rudeness.
Beer was cheap, but the consequences of being caught drunk were severe. Perhaps Grandfather read Sir Henry Newbolt's poetry about the Battle of the Dargai Heights in the Tirah:
Rising, roaring, rushing like the tide,
(Gay goes the Gordon to a fight)
They're up through the fire zone, not to be denied;
(Bayonets! and charge! by the right!)
but then again, unlike his grandson, he probably had more taste. In short, the peacetime life of a BOR was one of great boredom. So much so that the troops frequently suffered from what the French Foreign Legion, in similar uninteresting duty in the desert, called the "caffard", and simply went mad. The lucky ones were sent to the Deolali transit camp where their papers were stamped for treatment. Thus to go insane was to receive "the Doolally tap". The unlucky ones committed suicide, often on Sundays because, since the Mutiny, the British always went armed to church parade.
Faced with prospects like this it may be that grandfather received the news that the Devons were embarking for the coming war against the Boer Republics of South Africa with some relief. All the more so because the coming war, like all wars, would be over by Christmas.
The causes of the second Anglo-Boer War were long and complicated. They still arouse anger today and a discussion of them has no place in this article. It is not an over simplification to simply state that the war was a grudge match. The Boers didn't like the British. The British didn't like the Boers. It was obvious to both parties that, by late 1899, war was inevitable unless there was some conciliation and compromise. But such a course was unthinkable to the two main personalities involved, Milner, the British High Commissioner, and Kruger, the President of the Transvaal. The British decided to send stopgap reinforcements from India and an army corps from England. The Boers decided to launch a pre-emptive strike to win the war before these arrived.
General Sir George White and the first units from India, including perhaps my Granddad, arrived at Durban on 7th October 1899. Before these troops could deploy the Boers invaded Natal Province five days later. White did not have the manpower to defend all of Natal but he was tied to a war plan that required him to do so for political reasons. Thus instead of holding the Boers with his mostly infantry force on the line of the Tugela River, the outnumbered British troops were deployed in the north of the province where their position could be easily outflanked by the highly mobile, mounted Boer commandos.
The war started with a Pyrrhic victory for the British at Talana Hill. The British lost many more casualties than the Boers, most from accurate rifle fire and artillery that outranged the best the British had. Had the various Boer commandos, each unit fiercely independent, have co-operated, the entire British force would have been destroyed, either on the battlefield or when they were obliged to retreat on finding that other commandos had already by-passed them.
The day after Talana, October 21st, White despatched a brigade, including seven companies of the Devons, to relieve the pressure on the troops retreating from the north by attacking a commando under General Kock at Elandsglaate. Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, (yes my dear Watson, the same one) described the scene: "Soon they began to drop in, those useful reinforcements - first the Devons, quiet businesslike, reliable; then the Gordons, dashing, fiery, brilliant." Quiet compared to brilliant eh? How the Devons must have hated those Scotsmen that people kept writing poetry about!
Now my Grandfather does not have a medal bar for Elandsglaate. Probably this means that he wasn't present, after all three companies were left at Ladysmith. Possibly, since my medal book advises that bar sets on South Africa medals are notoriously incomplete, it simply means that the army bureaucracy never caught up and gave him the recognition that he deserved. If he was not in the field that Trafalgar Day he may have regretted it rather like Henry V's gentlemen in England now abed who held themselves accursed they were not there. For Elandsglaate stands out as one of the few examples of competent British soldiering in the early days of the war.
The British commander, Colonel Sir Ian Hamilton, had fought in the first Boer War 20 years previously and knew what the Boers could do. Just as importantly he had served in India and knew what men like my Grandfather could do if properly led. As usual the Boers were dug in on a range of hills with relatively clear arcs of fire to the front, although there was enough "dead ground" in the slightly rolling hills for competent British commanders to find cover for their men. Hamilton made a stirring speech to the men and made sure they understood his plan. Instead of the usual British tactic of assaulting in close formations that would be devastated by long range rifle fire, the Devons advanced in very extended order and pinned the Boer front. The Gordons made a flank attack and when the Boers turned to meet this the Devons charged under cover of a rainstorm and cleared the hill.
Like the Pathans of the Tirah, the Boers, having inflicted more losses on the British in the approach, would make the most of their superior mobility to slip away and fight another day. The British infantry had no chance of catching the mounted Boers, but Hamilton had anticipated their withdrawal and, as dusk was falling, unleashed a squadron of lancers and a squadron of dragoons into the Boer flank in the last, and one of the most successful, British cavalry charges of the century. Seeing the cavalry, the Boers tried to escape but the British warhorses were much faster than the Boer ponies. The British charged right through the commando, turned, regrouped and charged right back through it again. Americans fighting for the Boers alleged that they were attacked by 6,000 cavalry behaving like Sioux Indians. In fact it was less than 200 men who completed the destruction of Kock's commando.
Elandsglaate may have improved British morale and inflicted a setback on the Boer invasion but it did little to alter the strategic position. 15,000 British troops, mostly infantry, were facing 27,000 Boers, all mounted. The Boers also had more and better artillery. White could not run so he had to hide. The troops in Northern Natal were pulled back into the main supply base at Ladysmith.
Boer sharpshooters near Ladysmith
White, however, was certainly not the type to settle for a passive defence. As the Boer commandos closed in on Ladysmith he launched an ambitious attack to catch them off guard involving a daring night march and a multi - brigade assault. My Granddad was almost certainly involved in this action but, if he was, he would probably have preferred to stay abed. For the British the Battle of Ladysmith on 30th October 1899 was a disaster. The troops called it "Mournful Monday". The night marching force lost its way, was surrounded and obliged to surrender. The infantry attack was caught in the open by the superior Boer artillery and then sorely pressed by a Boer counterattack. Once again Hamilton's brigade, including the Devons, acquitted itself well, extricating another British brigade. However, after five hours of this rough treatment the British infantry assault turned into a hasty retreat with only a few outranged batteries of artillery fighting a staunch rearguard to prevent it degenerating into a rout.
With the British outnumbered, on the run, and with Boer commandos already to their south, a decisive charge by the Boers could well have destroyed all of White's force and left the way clear to Durban, the sea and victory for the Boer cause. As the Boer commander, Joubert, surveyed the British retreat one of his more aggressive subordinates kept muttering, "Los jou ruiters, los jou ruiters" (unleash your horsemen) and indeed he had over 10,000 fresh men to do his bidding. But Joubert decided that he had been successful enough for one day and made the famous remark, "When God holds out a finger, don't take the whole hand". Thus White, the British army, and my granddad lived to fight another day.
Joubert's decision not to pursue the British was compounded a few days later when, instead of ignoring White's force in Ladysmith, the Boers decided to besiege the town and send only a holding force to the Tugela River to prevent any relief attempts. Thus the Boers gave up their plan of a quick strike to the sea and from then on the initiative of the war passed to the British. The army corps from England was slowly arriving, to be followed by massive reinforcements from all over the Empire. The Boers soon lost their initial superiority in numbers. By besieging Ladysmith and Kimberly they also gave up their prime advantage of strategic mobility. Thus, in one sense, the war was over by Christmas. The Boers lost their last chance to win the war. The British still had a long, long way to go to win the war themselves, but, as long as the besieged garrisons held out, they knew that they couldn't lose it.
The siege of Ladysmith started on 2nd November 1899. It was not to be over by Christmas. White had lost 1400 men on "Mournful Monday", nearly 10% of his force. Of these 1,100 had surrendered, the greatest number since the Napoleonic Wars, but he still had sufficient men to hold his perimeter, with a reasonable reserve. Just before the Boers cut the railway to the South, White received very valuable reinforcements in the shape of 4.7" naval guns hastily removed from an armoured cruiser on the coast. At last the British had artillery of equal range to the Boer "Long Toms" which could now be kept at arms reach.
Like the other South African sieges at Kimberly and Mafeking, the affair at Ladysmith was relatively civilised as wars go. A neutral hospital encampment was established between the lines to minimise the suffering of the wounded and the women and children. The Boers tried not to do anything really unpleasant on Sundays. The Boer strategy was to starve the garrison out. This was supplemented by continuous, but not very intense shelling which, nevertheless, proved very trying on the nerves.
At first the British mounted an active defence with some splendid night sorties surprising and destroying Boer artillery emplacements. During these the Devons, and perhaps Granddad, played a supporting role. However, as the Boers stepped up their field security, and as hunger took its toll the British became less and less capable of offensive action, the siege settled down into a drudgery of shelling and starvation. The British soldier had always been expected to supplement his rations with locally purchased food. This was now impossible. As the siege went on through December, January and February, rations were cut back and the price of food available on the market skyrocketed beyond the means of soldiers like my Granddad who were paid a shilling a day. By Christmas a day's pay would by one egg. By late February the price of eggs had gone up another 400%.
Grandfather's commanding officer in the Devons, Major C.W. Park was a prolific letter and diary writer so we know a fair bit about life in the regiment during the siege. It is satisfying to note that the rigours of the siege did not affect Park's sense of perspective. Much of his writing shows him fretting about his own promotion and his diminishing stocks of whisky. Sadly the whisky ran out by Christmas, but, as a partial consolation, Park was promoted on Christmas day and the Boers stopped the shelling for the festive season. The regiment celebrated with Park. There was church parade in the morning, sports in the afternoon and a sing-song at night. Granddad got a Christmas issue of rum, tobacco and plum pudding, so, in Park's words, he did "not do badly".
Somebody who was doing badly was Sir Redvers Buller VC who was leading the relief attempt. The historical verdict on Buller is still out. After the war he was made the scapegoat for the failures of the British army in South Africa generally, which was probably undeserved. However he was responsible for several disastrous attempts to relieve Ladysmith which culminated in the defeats at Colenso, Spion Kop and Hlangwane. Later historians point out that the troops loved him, never lost faith in him, and that there must have been good reasons for this. His defeats were generally the products of indecision and, in the final analysis, the description of Buller as a man who inspired great confidence in everyone else, but had none in himself, may well be the best assessment.
The crisis of the siege came on 6th January 1900 when the Boers launched their only major assault on the perimeter. The key to the town's defences was the ridge of Platrand to the South of the town. If the Boers could take this, their artillery would dominate all the British positions and shell them into submission. The western edge of the ridge was known as Wagon Hill. A surprise night attack took most of the west of the ridge, with the British retaining a small toe hold on the eastern end. Throughout the day White committed his reserves but couldn't budge the Boers. If the Boers could hang on until nightfall they would be reinforced and the game would be all over for the British. As his last throw White ordered three companies of the Devons, perhaps including my Granddad, to leave their position on the perimeter and attack Wagon Hill. As at Elandsglaate a massive rainstorm presaged the attack. Sir Ian Hamilton said "Go on, and God bless you" and Park led his men in a bayonet charge over 130 yards of clear ground into a hail of Boer rifle fire. As Park described it the "men behaved most splendidly; there was not the slightest sign of checking or wavering" despite heavy casualties. The hill was taken and Ladysmith saved.
Sir Henry Newbolt wrote a truly awful poem about this action comparing the Devons with their famous forebear Sir Francis Drake. However when Newbolt visited the battlefield a few months later he did a lot better:
Lad you can rest now,
There beneath your hill!
Your hands are on your breast now
But is your heart so still?
'Twas the right death to die, lad
A gift without regret,
But unless truth's a lie, lad.
You dream of Devon yet.
Eventually, on 28th February, Buller broke through the Boer positions and Ladysmith was relieved in the early evening of that day. The garrison was emaciated and White's attempt to pursue the fleeing Boers had to be given up when none of the troops proved capable of marching more than four miles. White thanked his men fully for their support and ended his valedictory message with a phrase that sums up the Victorian era and men like White and my Grandfather: "Thank God we kept the flag flying".
After Ladysmith and Field Marshal Roberts' victories in the Orange Free State the conventional war was soon over as the Boer capitols fell and they were chased along the railway line towards Portuguese East Africa. I know little about the history of the first battalion of the Devon regiment in these operations. From Granddad's medal bar we know that they fought at Machadodorp, the last stand up fight of the Boer army. The British battle honour used the name of their headquarters at Belfast, probably, like Waterloo, because the English tongue could not get around the name of the real battlefield. That battle was fought in September 1900 and this time, with the Boer government fleeing into exile, it seemed certain that the war would be over by Christmas. Indeed, when the first Boer War medals were struck they carried the dates 1899-1900.
Alas the medals had to have the dates changed for the war was to continue for nearly two more years. The Boer commandos took to guerrilla tactics and the British took to extreme measures to stop them. At the end of the war 450,000 Imperial troops were rounding up the last 20,000 Boers left fighting. Over 8,000 blockhouses were built to prevent the commandos moving about, in some places they were positioned every one and a half miles. Into these fixed lines the remnants of the commandos were driven and brought to bay. Some were captured, many slipped through.
In the belief that the commandos were being sustained by their wives and families on their farms, the women and their farm labourers were taken from the farms by the British and placed in "concentration camps." In the camps disease and neglect killed thousands of blacks and whites to England's shame. Granddad probably participated in some of these operations. Just like in the ravaging of the Tirah, what in those days was considered to be a necessary evil of war conducted by soldiers doing their duty would today be considered a war crime.
Well there you have it. Five years in the life of my Grandfather all derived from three pieces of metal. I still have much to learn. All my research so far has been from secondary sources. Some future holiday will have to include visits to the Public Records Office in Kew, London and to the Regimental museum in Exeter. Some day a trip to the North West Frontier and to Ladysmith so that I can truly find my "roots" would not be amiss. All that I have to do now is convince Private G.A. Hunt's granddaughter-in-law of what a great idea this would be!
Royal Artillery crossing a river under fire
(a detail from a painting by George Scott)