The action at Acton Homes by Robin Smith
In September 2019 we lost the doyen of Anglo Boer War researchers, Steve Watt. Steve put together a seminal book of exceptional scholarship called ‘In Memoriam.’ This is a monumental listing of all the Imperial fatalities in the war, not just the names but a good many biographical details as well. It is an absolutely indispensable reference and is an astonishing work that took Steve thirty years to put together. He started with the official casualty list and undertook to visit the burial site of each and every one of the fatalities.
Only about a third of them were killed in action or died of wounds, as the military classify their dead. The rest died of disease, entheric (typhoid fever) being the biggest killer, or fell off their horses, drowned in rivers, were struck by lightning or just died.I don’t think Steve ever quite managed to get to each and every one but there are very few gaps in ‘In Memoriam’.
One such gap has recently been closed as you can read below about the grave that appeared on the village of Jericho in North West. Steve constantly kept working on omissions from his data. I have the book but I persuaded Steve to give me the data on CD some years ago. The book lists the names in alphabetical order, naturally enough, but often it is necessary to compile a list of casualties of a particular battle, or regiment or any one of several parameters that need to be investigated, which was enabled by the CD. Since that time Steve produced a CD to go with the book, so later copies have the electronic data included.
A good friend to all of us is no more, but his huge military historical archive is in the possession of the Talana Museum in Dundee. The curator, Pam McFadden is working to put it on the museum website so it will be preserved for posterity.
Spionkop was the scene of an Anglo Boer war battle which can only be described as a fiasco for both sides although the Boers came off a little better than their adversaries. They at least were in occupation of the hilltop the morning after the day’s action. The previous evening both sides had retreated – the Boers were already mounting their horses and preparing to gallop away to the east but General Louis Botha rallied them and persuaded them to at least stick it until the next morning. This how Deneys Reitz described what happened: (Commando pp78-79):
‘A few more stragglers joined us and we agreed to lead our horses to the Carolina wagon-laager that, as we knew, lay not far off. We foraged for food in the saddle-bags of such horses as were left, and then went off. When we reached the laager we found everything in a state of chaos. The wagons were being hurriedly packed, and the entire Carolina Commando was making ready to retire. They had borne the brunt of the day's battle and had fought bravely, but, now that the struggle was over, a reaction had set in and there was panic in the camp. Fortunately, just as the foremost wagons moved away and the horsemen were getting ready to follow, there came the sound of galloping hoofs, a man rode into our midst who shouted to them to halt. I could not see his face in the dark, but word went round that it was Louis Botha, the new Commandant-General, appointed in place of Piet Joubert who was seriously ill. He addressed the men from the saddle, telling them of the shame that would be theirs if they deserted their posts in this hour of danger; and so eloquent was his appeal that in a few minutes the men were ﬁling off into the dark to re-occupy their positions on either side if the Spion Kop gap. I believe that he spent the rest of the night riding from commando to commando exhorting and threatening, until he persuaded the men to return to the line, thus averting a great disaster.’
Spionkopwas not a single-day battle but the culmination of more than a month’s planning and logistics by General Sir Redvers Buller’s army. On 15 December a frontal assault on the defences across the Tugela from Colenso had been foiled by the determined rifle fire of the Boer defenders. It was clear that some other strategy was needed in order to break through the strong Boer defences on the line of hills on the north bank of the Tugela. Clearly, a way around this obstacle had to be found. A way around to the west looked promising and a viable option.
Reinforcements had been arriving steadily including another Lieutenant-General, Sir Charles Warren, brought out of retirement and given command of the Fifth Division. These soldiers had just arrived from Britain’s November weather and must have found the heat and humidity of Natal in January very trying. The move to the west began early in January 1900 with Major-General Geoffrey Barton’s Fusilier Brigade left to garrison Colenso. The British march was well to the south and almost invisible to Boer watchers on the high hills. Brigadier-General Lord Dundonald arrived to take charge of the mounted men including those who were already in the hamlet of Springfield (now Winterton).For the horsemen it was only a day’s ride. There were no roadsalong the line of march, only farm tracks, so the infantry and the transport had to grapple with the mud in the continuous rain.
However, this is not going to be an account of the campaign of Spionkop.That is covered by a vast array of literature since this tactically rather inconsequential battle has received attention, and still does, out of all importance to its inconclusive outcome.Winston Churchill was with Buller’s force as a supernumerary lieutenant of the South African Light Horse. Also there was Lieutenant Tom Bridges of the Imperial Light Horse.
On 19 January there was a skirmish involving Dundonald’s men that has received onlyscanty coverage – except for Winston Churchill in his book The Boer War where he wrote a detailed but rather dramatic and emotional account of what happened. That book consists almost entirely of the letters that he wrote to The Morning Postand his account of Trichardt’s Drift and the Affair of Acton Homeswas written on 21 January, just two dayslater.
In Alarms and ExcursionsTom Bridges includes his experiences in South Africa including some events thatare not found anywhere else. Bridges’s book is a chronicle of hisremarkable career. First comes the story of how he came to get involved in the war. Once the affair at Acton Homes has been dealt with and the site identified, a little of what he accomplished in South Africa and thereafteris what is described.Alarms and Excursions is a rare book as there was only a short print run in 1937 when it was published. There is a foreword by Winston Churchill who clearly knew him well over many years.
Tom Bridges’s first military experience was in India as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. After a couple of happy years there he decided that a more active life than serving in a small battery in apple-pie order would be preferable. Besides, ‘the Nizam of Hyderabad did not invite subalterns to shoot his tigers. So when one day applications were invited for the Uganda Rifles, I submitted my name.’ He was dispatched, not to Uganda, but to the Armed Forces of Central Africa in Zomba, Nyasaland. On the ship to South Africa was Colonel Herbert Plumer, on his way as special services officer to raise a regiment in Rhodesia. It was 1899 and the year that the storm burst over the Transvaal. Bridges had tried to obtain his release from the Foreign Office for this eventuality but to no avail.
‘Determined, however, not to miss this campaign I burnt my boats and set out from Zomba for the Zambesi the day after we heard that war had been declared, taking nothing with me but a sporting Mannlicher, a revolver, khaki kit and some French leave. Chinde, the little port at mouth of the river provided a mild thrill. I was sitting in the rest house when the consul came in and showed me a telegram bidding him inform one Lieutenant Bridges, should he pass that way that he was to return immediately and report himself to Zomba. But I was travelling incognito and could be of no assistance to him.’
By ship to Durban and then, still incognito, to the railhead at Estcourt where he found a gunner, Colonel Charles Long who told him to go back to central Africa but nevertheless took him on as a galloper.
Part of the small garrison of Estcourt was ‘A’ Squadron of the Imperial Light Horse. The squadron commander, Captain James Bottomley, applied to Long for Bridges to command a troop whose officer had become a casualty. He jumped at the idea, seeing a way of sinking his identity for a time. He formed a good opinion of the men in his command and had his baptism of fire at Willow Grove, covering the withdrawal of the West Yorkshires from Brynbella Hill. After Buller’s arrival and the failure of the frontal attack on the hills opposite Colenso, came the move westwards and the campaign of Spionkop.
‘Shortly after Colenso my incognito was unmasked. Lord Dundonald who commanded the irregular cavalry sent for me and said that the War Ofﬁce were very annoyed and had issued orders that I was to be put under arrest and sent home for trial for absence without leave. A serious affair, he said, but that he had been to General Buller and represented that I commanded a useful body of scouts and could ill be spared. Tothis the Commander-in-Chief eventually agreed and the War Office allowed the case to stand over until after the war.’
‘After Colenso the squadron was made into a composite regiment with a squadron of Natal Carabiniers(Carbineers - Bridges uses the Irish name) and acompany of Mounted Infantry, details of whose formationswere in Ladysmith (the 60th and Riﬂe Brigade and DublinFusiliers). Command was given to Hubert Gough, then aCaptain in the 16th Lancers on Buller’s staff. Our ﬁrstengagement as a regiment, though small, was, thanks to alocal man, Duncan McKenzie of the Natal Carabiniers,very successful in cutting off and severely handling a Boercommando which was working round our left flank atActon Homes. It was a ﬁne example of what could bedone by intimate knowledge of the ground and goodstalking, and ended after a fast three-mile gallop in aperfect ambuscade, the Boers riding through a narrowneck held by us on either side.’
This is the engagement described on p222 of the Times History Vol III:
‘A small party of Harrismith burghers with a gun had been posted on this ﬂank for some days. But in consequence of Warren's crossing they were reinforced on the morning of the 18th by some 200 burghers under Field-Cornets Opperman, of Pretoria, and Mentz, of Heilbron. The newcomers had just crossed the ridge west of Tabanyama when they spied Dundonald’s main body. They promptly trotted forward down the road to seize some low kopjes commanding the way to Acton Homes. But they had failed to observe the Composite Regiment, who were acting as advanced guard. Major Graham promptly galloped his men to the kopjes and established them there in readiness. On came the unsuspecting burghers and would have ridden right up to the British but for the premature ﬁre of some excited irregular. Turning about, under a furious fusillade, the Boers galloped away, a small party taking up a position on a hillock in rear, where, after ﬁghting pluckily for an hour, they surrendered. (In a footnote, the Times History further says: The Boer loss was 12 killed, including Field Cornet Mentz, 10 wounded and 23 prisoners.)’
Winston Churchill and Hubert Gough were both present during this little scuffle.Churchill watched through his binoculars and then galloped up to the place while the engagement was in progress.Churchill has much more detail and so we must go back a couple of days. After battling the mud the army assembled in Springfield and then advanced to Spearman’s Farm where there is today a military cemetery with some victims of Spion Kop and even more who died in the No 4Field Hospital. The two divisions of the army were mostly invisible to the long-range Boer watchers of Spion Kop and Thabanyama but no doubt their spies kept them up to speed on what the British were up to.Spearman’s is opposite Potgieter’s Drift where there was a pont (ferry), parked on the opposite bank, but swimmers brought it across and Lieutenant-General Neville Lyttleton’s division was soon over the Tugela. But Buller’s plan was to go further west and Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Warren was given the task of getting around the Boer left flank on Spion Kop and Thabanyama, further west.
At Trichardt’s Drift the engineers built two pontoon bridges. The Infantry and cavalry made their way across but only after a patrol of the Imperial Light Horse under Captain Bridges had ascertained that only a few Dutch scouts were moving within range on the further bank. Two infantry brigades and artillery crossed over but, Churchill describes:
‘It soon became time for the cavalry to cross, but they were not accommodated, as were the infantry, with a convenient bridge. About a quarter of a mile downstream from Trichardt’s Drift there is a deep and rather dangerous ford, called the Waggon Drift. Across this at noon the mounted men began to make their way, and what with the uneven bottom and the strong current there were a good many duckings. The Royal Dragoons mounted on their great horses, indeed, passed without much difficulty, but the ponies of the Light Horse and Mounted Infantry were often swept off their feet, and the ridiculous spectacle of ofﬁcers and men ﬂoundering in the torrent or rising indignantly from the shallows provided a large crowd of spectators,who had crossed by the bridge, with a comedy. Tragedy was not, however, altogether excluded, for a trooper of the 13th Hussars was drowned, and Captain Tremayne, of the same regiment, who made a gallant attempt to rescue him, was taken from the water insensible.’
Of course, with all the rain, the Tugela was flowing more strongly than normal.Warren’s infantry headed for Thabanyamaand Spion Kop while the horsemen turned left, crossed the trickle known as Venter’s Spruit and, shielded behind the higher ground to their right, advanced ina long line in the direction of the farm or hamlet of Acton Homes. By two o’clock they formed a line of observationabout ﬁve miles long facing the hill of Thabanyama. The two squadrons of Colonial horsemen, the Natal Carbineers and the Imperial Light Horse,led the advance.They were well ahead of the rest when their scouts noticed two hundred Boers moving westwards.
The end of the Boer line faced west and there was a gun facing west somewhere about the position of the Easby farmhouse. The Boers admitted afterwards that they thought that the squadrons partly visible behind the ridges were the head of the British column. They sent a strong force riding across the slightly undulating ground to investigate. Unfortunately, the Colonials had occupied two rocky outcrops and opened a crossfire as they passed between them.
Churchill, some distance down the line, heard the firing and caught sight of the incident, as he describes:
‘Presently came the sound of distant musketry—not so very distant either. Everyone pricked up his ears. Two miles away to the left was a green hill broken by rocky kopjes. Looking through my glasses I could see ten or twelve riderless horses grazing; a mile further on a group of Boers sheltering behind a kopje from the continual ﬁre was visible. Suddenly one galloped away madly, and even at the distance it was possible to see the cloud of dust from pursuing bullets. A straggling column of Boers was trekking away across the plain back to their main position.The Carabineers and the Imperial Light Horse held their ﬁre until the scouts walked into their midst, and then let drive at the main body, 800 yards range, mounted men, smooth open grass plain. There was a sudden furious, snapping fusillade. The Boer column stopped paralysed; then they broke and rushed for cover. The greater number galloped fast from the ﬁeld; some remained on the ground dead or wounded. Others took refuge among the rocks of the kopjes and apparently proposed to hold out until dark, and hence the arrival of Lieutenant Barnes demanding reinforcements, 60th Riﬂes, Mounted Infantry, and anything else, so as to attack these fellows in ﬂank.Behind the rumours Barnes, adjutant of the Imperial Light Horse, joyful, with a breathless horse; he explained how they had seen two hundred Boers moving along the track leading westwards, galloped to cut them off; reached the hills ﬁrst, with just ﬁve minutes to spare; dismounted, commanding the road, and waited.The Carabineers and the Imperial Light Horse held their ﬁre until the scouts walked into their midst, and then let drive at the main body, 800 yards range, mounted men, smooth open grass plain. There was a sudden furious, snapping fusillade. The Boer column stopped paralysed; then they broke and rushed for cover. The greater number galloped fast from the ﬁeld; some remained on the ground dead or wounded. Others took refuge among the rocks of the kopjes and apparently proposed to hold out until dark, and hence the arrival of Lieutenant Barnes demanding reinforcements, South African Light Horse, 60th Riﬂes, Mounted Infantry, and anything else, so as to attack these fellows in ﬂank.’
Lieutenant Reginald Barnes was an old Churchill friend who shared a bungalow with him when they were both stationed in India with the 4th Hussars. In 1895 when Churchill, too poor to hunt, was looking for something to do on his leave, obtained permission to be seconded to the Spanish Army in their guerrilla war in Cuba, Reggie Barnes went too. He had taken leave when the Anglo Boer war broke out, made his own way to Natal, and got an appointment as Adjutant of the Imperial Light Horse. In the Great War he was Major-General Sir Reginald Barnes, KCB.
‘Meanwhile Lord Dundonald had arrived on our hill. “Certainly, every man we can spare.” Off gallops the Mounted Infantry and one squadron of the South African Light Horse, and later on some of Thorneycroft’s, and later still the Brigadier himself. I arrived in time to see the end. The Boers—how many we could not tell—were tenaciously holding the black rocks of a kopje and were quite invisible. The British riﬂemen curved round them in a half-moon, ﬁring continually at the rocks. The squadron of South African Light Horse had worked almost behind the enemy, and every Dutchman who dared make a dash for liberty ran a terrible gauntlet. Then from among the rocks three dark ﬁgures stood up holding up their hands, and at this tangible evidence of surrender we got on our horses and galloped towards them waving pocket handkerchiefs and signalling ﬂags to show them that their surrender was accepted. Altogether there were twenty-four prisoners – all Boers of the most formidable type—a splendid haul, and I thought with delight of my poor friends the prisoners at Pretoria. This might redeem a few. Then we searched the ground, ﬁnding ten dead or dying and twenty loose horses, ten dead and eight badly wounded men. The soldiers crowded round these last, covering them up with blankets or mackintoshes, propping their heads with saddles for pillows, and giving them water and biscuits from their bottles and haversacks. Anger had turned to pity in an instant. The desire to kill was gone. The desire to comfort replaced it. A little alert officer – Hubert Gough, now a captain, soon to command a regiment — came up to me. Two minutes before his eyes were bright and joyous with the excitement of the man hunt. He had galloped a mile—mostly under ﬁre—-to bring the reinforcements to surround the Boers. Now he was very sad. “There’s a poor boy dying up there—only a boy, and so cold—who’s got a blanket?” So the soldiers succoured the Boer wounded, and we told the prisoners that they would be shown courtesy and kindness worthy of brave men and a famous quarrel. The Boer dead were collected and a ﬂag of truce was sent to the enemy’s lines to invite a burying and identiﬁcation party at dawn. I have often seen dead men, killed in war—-thousands at Omdurman—scores elsewhere, black and white, but the Boer dead aroused the most painful emotions. Here by the rock under which he had fought lay the Field Comet of Heilbronn, Mr. de Mentz—a grey-haired man of over sixty years, with ﬁrm aquiline features and a short beard. The stony face was grimly calm, but it bore the stamp of unalterable resolve; the look of a man who had thought it all out, and was quite certain that his cause was just, and such as a sober citizen might give his life for. Nor was I surprised when the Boer prisoners, told me that Mentz had refused all suggestions of surrender, and that when his left leg was smashed by a bullet he had continued to load and ﬁre until he bled to death; and they found him, pale and bloodless, holding his wife’s letter in his hand. Beside him was a boy of about seventeen shot through the heart. Further on lay our own two poor riﬂemen with their heads smashed like eggshells; and I suppose they had mothers or wives far away at the end of the deep-sea cables. Ah, horrible war, amazing medley of the glorious and the squalid, the pitiful and the sublime, if modem men of light and leading saw your face closer, simple folk would see it hardly ever.’
Locating the place where all this happened seems to have been difficult. One highly-respected tour guide once told me that it took place up in the hills behind Thabanyama. In fact, the place is quite easy to find once a little logic is applied. It happened west of the hills and on what was once a track leading to some farms in the valley of the Venterspruit. The two rocky outcrops where the fight took place are much more difficult to locate and are a lot less prominent than an artist has portrayed them in a picture of the ambush. A little further on the track goes over a ridge and this is where the two squadrons halted.They would have been out of sight of the oncoming Boers. Bridges generously gives credit to Duncan Mackenzie but Churchill mentions only the names of Imperial officers, no Colonials.
For the next few days the British and the Boers struggled mightily on the plateau of Thabanyama and then on Spionkop. This was in an attempt to gain control of the heights and the road leading over the hills and down into the valley beyond. For the British to have broken through could conceivably have opened the road into Ladysmith and shortened the siege. Tom Bridges was now given a scouting mission:
‘While this struggle was in progress I was sent to try and work round the rear of the Boers and ﬁnd out what was going on. I left camp at dark with a patrol and made for a well-marked conical hill outside our left ﬂank. Here we left our horses and I took with me one man, a red-headed colonial lad named Stanley London, who knew the ground, could speak Kafﬁr and the Taal and could hold his own in a scrap.’
‘Travelling as light as possible and armed only with revolvers, we walked most of the night and found our way to a pass in the Drakensberg called Van Reenans, where we concealed ourselves and waited for daybreak. As soon as it got light we were able to see several laagers behind Spion Kop and also one below us, and the route we had taken during the night which was now well marked by a ribbon of track across the dewy grass. To our left was the road through the rocky pass, the line of communications for the Free State commandos engaged at Ladysmith. The laager below us was already being struck and moving to the north, and during the day we could see horsemen and wagons from behind Spion Kop following suit. This was important news, but there was no hope of getting it back till dark as Boers were everywhere, and even if we succeeded in crossing the open valley in daylight we were some twenty miles from camp and the horses were not to meet us until 10 p.m. that night. So we camouﬂaged our hide and ate our emergency rations while I made a sketch and took notes.’
‘About nine in the morning we saw two Boers riding towards us, following our tracks. Arrived at the foot of the hill they held a consultation. Then one dismounted and proceeded to follow our spoor on foot, whilst the other remained with the two horses. This required action, and London suggested that he should move round and ambush the stalker and either capture or shoot him. So he disappeared and I went on with my observations. A quarter of an hour later I heard his whistle and on my answering it he appeared with a Mauser slung on his shoulder preceded by a middle-aged nervous-looking Boer dressed in moleskins. London had hidden near our tracks and as soon as the Boer passed had held him up from behind. All day our prisoner stayed and we became quite matey and swopped information and rations. He had no stomach for the war and would not be sorry to go to a prison camp. He looked on Ladysmith as already relieved and pointed out to me the long wagon columns moving north. But still Boer shells were bursting accurately on Spion Kop and there was evidence of a stubborn struggle there. After an hour or so our prisoner’s companion got tired of waiting and shouting down below and rode off, taking both horses with him.’
‘We could see the conical hill where the patrol was to meet us, and our prisoner volunteered to take us there by a shorter route as soon as it got dark enough to move. At sundown we moved off, negotiating the rough hillside before dark, then walked across the open veldt in single ﬁle, the Boer between us, myself leading and London, pistol in hand, behind. Our captive was as good as his word and we arrived at the rendezvous two hours before the horses. London and I agreed to keep half-hour watch and ward on our prisoner, but having been awake for over twenty-four hours in the very ﬁrst watch I went off sound asleep and was only roused by the arrival of the patrol with our horses. But the Boer had gone, though London still had his riﬂe slung on his shoulder. It was lucky for us that he was not a tougher customer.’’
‘We hurried on to camp and I sent in my report, but the abandonment of Spion Kop had already been decided on. It had been ordered at 7.30 in the evening and General Buller only knew of it next morning. The retirement was ordered by Colonel Thorneycroft, who had been put in command of the troops on the hill and had the reputation of being a stout ﬁghter. But he was wounded and doubtless did not realize the far-reaching effects of his decision. The responsibility must lie with his seniors who were not in close enough touch with the situation. Though our troops had endured a severe gruelling all day especially from well-directed shrapnel and pom-pom ﬁre, when darkness set in reorganization and relief were possible in comparative safety. It was galling to learn that the Boers had also abandoned the position, leaving only a few die-hards on the hill. It was one of those drawn battles where he who has the guts to remain on the ground wins.’
Bridges was one of the combined contingent of Natal Carbineers and Imperial Light Horsemen who galloped into Ladysmith on the evening of 27 February 1900 to be greeted by the garrison, emaciated with hunger and dysentery, who could raise only a feeble cheer. They were led by Major Hubert Gough, a full General and knighted in the Great War, whose orders were that they were to enter in double file so that neither regiment could claim the honour being the first in. Bridges tasted horse at dinner that night which he told his sister in one of his letters that ‘it wasn’t bad, makes you feel inclined to whinny.’ He told this interesting horse anecdote:
‘Most of the horses and mules had been eaten during the siege (as well as their oats). Orders had been given to keep those in best condition which had the curious result of leaving us with a lot of greys. In fact among some seventy horses, the survivors of the regiment that I took over there must have been ﬁfty greys. One notable exception who survived the siege deserves mention. He was the “Old Soldier,” a bay “waler" I had bought in India when cast for age from the Horse Artillery three years previously. He was a well-known character in the fighting ring of Military Tournaments and also after pig and helpful in breaking young horses in to coach work. He was an old-fashioned horse of much intelligence and a great heart. I found him a kind home on leaving India and was surprised to see him, thin as a rail, quietly nibbling the bark of a gum-tree in the gunner lines of Ladysmith. His master was in hospital where I visited him and soon regained possession. A month knee-deep in the luscious pastures of the Mooi River where we convalesced the survivors, put him back in ﬁne fettle and it was grand to see the old veteran kicking up his heels in the paddock, for he was always chock-full of mischief. His adventurous life ended at the Relief of Mafeking where he was shot dead with my groom on his back. I trust he roams the Fields of Asphodel and perchance rubs noses and exchanges reminiscences with other equine heroes, Bucephalus, Copenhagen, Marengo, Vonolel, Black Bess and their like. Though only a ranker he could tell them a few things for he was a tough customer.’
And Bridges was delighted with his promotion:
‘At Mooi River I was given command of a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse and became proudly and firmly rooted in the regiment for the duration of the war.’
He was with the I.L.H. when they returned to Johannesburg, for most of them their home town. An interview in Pretoria with the Commander-in-Chief was well remembered:
‘The end of the war being still not in sight, my case was again resuscitated and I was hauled before the Commander-in-Chief at Pretoria to be summarily dealt with. Lord Roberts received me in his ofﬁce. He was a dapper, alert little man with a grey moustache and imperial, and a keen and penetrating blue eye that made me feel like a Lower Fourth Form boy up before the headmaster. He proceeded to give me a proper dressing down. “Do you imagine,” he said, “that the British Army exists for your own especial convenience? Let me tell you, sir, that it is very much easier to leave the Army than to enter it.” He then told me that I had been docked of all my promotion in the Artillery since my absence from Central Africa (thirty-ﬁve places on the list) and that I could consider myself very lucky not to have been removed from the Army. Having reduced me to proper proportions, for even when he stood up, for all my six foot four, I felt the smaller of the two, he then read me a ﬂattering report and said I should be given back twenty-ﬁve places of promotion for distinguished service in the ﬁeld. This done, he rose, and taking my arm said, “It’s just what your father would have done, come and have some lunch.” That was an example of the human touch which endeared “Bobs” to the whole Army throughout his long connexion with it. He went home soon after this covered with honour, his life shadowed by the loss of his only son who was killed trying to save Long’s guns at Colenso, for which he was awarded the V.C., won by his father forty years earlier during the Mutiny.’
Bridges served in the I.L.H. until the end of the war. From South Africa he was posted to Somaliland and the campaign against Abdullah, the Mad Mullah. Major John Gough, brother of Hubert and another Ladysmith siege veteran, won the Victoria Cross in this series of operations. After the Camberley Staff College and time as Chief Instructor at the Cavalry School he was offered the position of Military Attaché in Brussels. He had responsibility for four countries – Belgium and Scandinavia.His career thereafter was eventful and some of the incidents that he relates in his book will bear telling. When he eventually retired he was Lieutenant-General Sir Tom Bridges and his last official appointmentwas as Governor of South Australia. There is even a town in South Australia named after him!
Alarms and Excursions is full of interesting accounts of incidents and events that concerned him and his career in the Great War and subsequently. His descriptions of the actions are vivid because he was frequently right up with the action. It’s interesting that at La Boiselle during the Somme battle, he remarks that ‘reports were very confused. Remembering the tragedy of Spionkop’ (where he said the responsibility must lie with his seniors who were not in close enough touch with the situation) ‘I went right across to the village and had a talk with Major Carton de Wiart commanding the 8thGloucesters.’ De Wiart was later recommended for the V.C. in that action. ‘Rawly’ (General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the Army Commander) ‘came to see us before we left the line and handed bouquets to the 19 Division. He gave me a sharp rap over the knuckles for being in the front line during an attack and had me promoted to Major-General.’
Bridges lost a leg during the Battle of the Passchendaele in 1917 and his book, written in 1937, opens with this grim anecdote:
‘Imagine the white efficiency of an operating-theatre, the surgeon ruthless and rubber-gloved with his satellites in their ghostly Ku-Klux-Klan disguise. A harsh light reflects polished instruments and illumines the centre of interest, yourself, taking a last glimpse at the melancholy inverted face of the anaesthetist, ﬁnal link with the conscious world, as he turns on his magic and projects you into Nirvana.
Such was my fate a short while ago. But as scents have a power of recall denied to all the other senses, so at the first wave of ether the white walls seemed to dissolve and the scene changed. I was back in Flanders, in the battered little house in Wulveringen and beside my bed under the dim oil lamp stood an orderly in khaki:
"You’ll be all right, soon, sir,” he said cordially. “You’re going into the pictures now.”
Outside frequent explosions reminded us that Fritz was still cross over a nasty prod in the vitals that we had given him. The “noises off” were easily identiﬁed. That crash was a 5.9 and those distant salvoes would be 11-inch looking for the ammunition dump — only big stuff or air bombs could reach us here. South of the village a pair of our long sixes barked, making the battered old house shake. The window-panes had long since gone and been replaced by paper. Phit! phitl Surely those thuds were gas shells? ’ Gas! Ought one to warn them? No! Let them be gassed and besides everyone had a mask except me and I was soon to have some nice gas of my own.
A sister came in and peered gravely at me. I wondered if I looked as bad as I felt. She leant over me. Was this indeed to be the last woman I should see on earth? She should have been young, lovely and romantic but alas! In the dim light she had a face rather like a horse. What business had she here anyway, so near the front?
“Is there anything you would like done?” she asked, “just in case . . . ?”
“Things don’t go all right?” I suggested.
“Yes.” Tactless female! She expected me to say, “Give this ring to my mother.” Instead I beckoned her to come closer.
“What do you do with all the legs you cut off?”
She looked shocked but said, “Burn them.”
“Well,” I said, “don’t burn mine. Give it to the lion mascot of the 19th Division. He hasn’t had meat to-day and he’ll know what to do with it. This is my last will and testament and if you don’t I shall come back and haunt you!”
And so to the “pictures” in an E.P. tent. “Oh Lord!” I thought as I passed out, “if I come out of this jam alive I shall write about it all some day.” And that was just twenty years ago to a month.’
(You will understand the reference to the lion if you read a bit further!)
This is the story ofthe lion mascot of the 19th Division:
In the spring of 1916 I got a recruit for the Division. During a short leave while lunching with Arthur Capel in Paris I saw something strange in his garden which proved to be a lion cub won in a Red Cross raffle a few days before. He offered me the beast and I took it away in a champagne hamper in the car to its new home. We called him Poilu and he had a sister Cleo who belonged to the Ducd’Orléans and was subsequently sent to the Zoo in Regent’s Park. Poilu soon made himself at home, for he was an amiable beast, and never showed temper and he stayed with us, running loose, until September I917 when I was wounded. He then went home in charge of one of my aides-de-camp and there was quite a party on hoard ship when he broke out of his crate during a rough passage and took command of the vessel, treeing crew and passengers on the bridge or in the rigging, until ﬁnally induced by his “batman” to enter a ﬁrst-class cabin. He was not persona grata with the Adjutant-General, and I had intimations from him that the Commander-in-Chief disapproved and that Poilu should be sent away. But the answer was “Come and take him” or words to that effect. He helped to amuse the men and the legend grew that he was being trained to go over the top as soon as big enough. He was not difficult to feed and it was one aide-de-camp's job to see that he did not go hungry and this ofﬁcer could be heard sometimes telephoning, “Anybody got a dead horse this morning? All right, I'll send a car down for a haunch.” Poilu lived to be benign and mellow in Mr. Tyrwhitt-Drake's private collection near Maidstone. Always the perfect gentleman, he contrived to die aged nineteen, on the 19th of June, the mascot of the 19th Division. In a newspaper which announced this important fact it added as if in afterthought, “The Duke of Wellington died yesterday on Waterloo Day.”
On one occasion the Prime Minister came visiting:
My headquarters were then in dug-outs in the Scherpenberg Hill, a prominent point where distinguished visitors could come and actually see shells bursting. Such callers were frequent, and they often dropped in for refreshments. Mr. Asquith came one day but his climb to the hill-top was interrupted by meeting Poilu face to face. “I may be wrong,” he said, “but did I see a lion in the path?”
At this time, 1916 and the Somme battle, Bridges’s men captured the village of Grandcourt in October. Sadly, his old friend and fellow scout, Stanley London was one of the casualties. London was from Natal but I have not been able to find if there are still any descendants or relatives in this area.
Having been Military Attaché just before the war Bridges was sent on military-diplomatic missions to America, Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He met with a number of world leaders including French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau in 1920:
‘Before talking business Clemenceau analysed the ﬁgure (a nude) which stood on his desk. He called it “un véritable mélange de style. La tétenettementorientale, maisIapoitrine fait penser aux femmes frêles de la Renaissance. Les hanches out Ie cachet du Grand Siècle—cesontcleshanchesàIaMontespan. Le derriéreestcertainementceluid’unenégresse. Tout celaparaîtinvraisemblablemaisilestvrai,” added the sportive octogenarian reﬂectively, joining his gloved ﬁnger tips, “qua j’aiconnuunefemme égalementanachronique et presquepareilleàcetteChinoise—dans ma jeunesse.” He loved old things and when exasperated by the imbecility of his contemporaries would tum to the glories of ancient Greece for solace. Duller and weightier matters we discussed in English which he spoke admirably. (The French translated: ‘A veritable mix of styles. The head is clearly oriental, but the bust is reminiscent of the frail women of the Renaissance. The hips have the style of the Great Century - they are those of Montespan. The derriére is certainly that of a negress. It all seems unlikely but it is true that I knew such an anachronistic woman as this Chinese in my youth.’ Madame Francoise-Athènaïs de Montespan was a very close friend of King Louis XIV.)
A final anecdote concerns the remarkable character, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson who ended the war as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, virtually head of the British Army. Wilson, an Irishman from Ulster, was assassinated outside the front door of his London House by the I.R.A. in 1922:
‘Henry Wilson had extraordinary spirits and charm. His genial hilarity, even when things were going badly, was as proverbial as his extravagance in speech and writing. His diaries, while most interesting sidelights on the times, suffer from this exuberant style, and except amongst his friends their publication did his memory more harm than good. Things were never dull when Henry was about and you could not travel with him without having adventures. There are many stories told of him of which the following is typical. When he was Chief of the Imperial General Staff at the War Office he used to take a run in the Park before breakfast, with a bundle of newspapers, and scan them while he had a breather. For this outing he wore a suit of clothes which he prided himself on having had as a cadet at Sandhurst, old yachting shoes and a disgraceful cap. He was accosted one morning by a faultless city gent, who said: “Got The Times there, my man?” “Yessir,” said Henry, springing up from his seat, scenting a joke. “Aha! give me one. Old soldier, I expect?” “Yessir,” said Henry, “Rifle Brigade, sir.” “Aha!” said the immaculate one, “good regiment, here’s sixpence for you.” Then rather impressed by Henry’s height, he said, “Sergeant-major, perhaps?” “No, sir!” roared Henry with one of his diabolic guffaws, “Field-Marshall!” Convinced he had to deal with a dangerous madman the other took to his heels.’
Mention has already been made of the No 4 Field Hospital during the Anglo Boer war which was at Mount Alice with Buller’s advance. Sir Frederick Treves, a Harley Street surgeon, was one of a number of civilian doctors who were seconded to the army. He wrote a little book with the title The Tale of a Field Hospital and there are a number of interesting incidents and stories that he relates. This was something that happened when the hospital was at Chieveley during the battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899:
‘After a busy afternoon among the ﬁeld hospitals under the naval ridge, I returned in the evening to Chieveley, in the hope, now that the bulk of the work was over, of getting something to eat. I had not been at Chieveley long when an orderly arrived with a letter to tell me that Lieutenant Roberts had been brought in wounded, and to ask me to go back to the naval hill at once. It was now dark, and I had at that time no horse. However, the hospital train was standing in the station, and to the fertile brain of Major Brazier-Creagh, who was in charge of the train, it occurred that we might detach the engine and go down on it to the ridge, since the ﬁeld hospitals were close to the railway. There was the difficulty, however, that the line was a single line, and a water train had already steamed down to the ridge, and was expected back at any moment. It was the simple problem of an engine on the one hand, and of a train on the other, proceeding in different directions at night on a single line of rail. The case being urgent, the engine was detached and we started. Major Brazier-Creagh and Captain Symonds came with me. It so happened that we went tender ﬁrst. The railway line appeared to us to go up and down with many undulations, and at the top of each rise we expected to meet the water train. Fortunately the moon was coming up, and the blackness which oppressed us was fading a little. We proceeded slowly, with much whistling and considerable waving of a red lamp. At last there was made out the dim outline of the water train coming towards us at a fair speed. We stopped, and there were redoubled efforts in the direction of whistling, lamp waving, and shouting. These exhibitions had an immediate effect upon the water train, which, after some hysterical whistling, stopped and backed promptly out of sight. The driver told us afterwards that he thought a whole train was coming down upon him at full speed, and that he might well have backed down into Colenso. We got out some way above the ridge and walked on to the ﬁeld hospital I had so lately left. The gallant ofﬁcer I came to see was comfortably bestowed in a tent, was quite free from pain and anxiety, and was disposed to sleep. From a surgicalpoint of view the case was hopeless, and had beenhopeless from the ﬁrst, and no idea of an operationcould be entertained. Our examination and our discussion of the case with Major Hamilton, R.A.M.C. under whose care the patient was, occupied sometime, and the engine had long since gone back to Chieveley. There was nothing to be done but to sleep on the ground in the open, and this we proceeded to do, lying down on the grass outside the tent we had just visited. There was no hardship in this, as it was a splendid night, and the full moon had risen and had ﬂooded the whole country with a spectral light.’
The No 4 Field Hospital followed the army and was established at Spearman’s Camp during the Spion Kop campaign. Another story that he tells is a sad one:
‘One instance of the indomitable pluck of the British soldier deserves special notice. A private in the King’s Royal Riﬂes, of the name of Goodman, was brought from Spion Kop to No. 4 Field Hospital in an ambulance with many others. He was in a lamentable plight when he arrived. He had been lying on the hill all night. He had not had his clothes off for six days. Rations had been scanty, and he had been sleeping in the open since he left the camp. He had been struck in the face by a fragment of shell, which had carried away his right eye, the right upper jaw, the corresponding part of the cheek and mouth, and had left a hideous cavity, at the bottom of which his tongue was exposed. The rest of his face was streaked with blood, which was now dried and black~—so black that it looked as if tar had been poured on his head and had streamed down his cheek and neck. Eight hours had been occupied on the journey to the hospital, and eight hours is considered to be long even for a railway journey in a Pullman car. He was unable to speak, and as soon as he was settled in a tent he made signs that he wanted to write. A little memorandum book and a pencil were handed to him, and it was supposed that his inquiry would be as to whether he would die — what chance he had? Could he have something to drink? Could anything be done for his pain? After going through the form of wetting his pencil at what had once been a mouth, he simply wrote: “Did we win?” Another time he wrote, “Did my haversack come with me? If it did, there is some tobacco in it. You can give it to them that smoke.” Poor Goodman, he had no mouth to smoke with himself. I am glad to say he reached England, is in good health, and is as cheery as ever.’
(Mount Alice Military Cemetery is marked on R600 and is a short distance off the road behind the farmhouse. It is on private property, so remember that you make take only pictures and leave only footprints!)
Sir Frederick Treves was a famous pioneer in abdominal surgery. He became a surgeon, specialising in abdominal surgery, at the London Hospitalin the late 19th and early 20th century. On 29 June 1888, he performed the first appendicectomyin England. Treves founded his surgery on anatomy, and was fortunate in practising at a time when Lister's teaching allowed of a great extension of abdominal surgery. He was an expert dissector, and operated neatly, quickly and cautiously. He was myopic and generally wore spectacles, but in operating, especially in the days of the spray, he laid aside his spectacles and held his head close to his work. King Edward VII at the age of 30 had suffered gravely from typhoid fever, which had been followed by varicose veins and phlebitis, limiting his exercise. He was stout, and bronchitic. His Coronation had been appointed for June 26th, 1902. At Windsor, on June 13th, he had an abdominal attack which Sir Thomas Barlow and Sir Francis Laking attributed to appendix trouble. Treves was called in on June 18th. The local swelling having subsided somewhat and the temperature having fallen, the King journeyed to London on June 21st. That evening the lump increased and the temperature rose. Early on the 24th, Lord Lister and Sir Thomas Smith, the senior Serjeant Surgeons, joined the physicians in consultation, and came to the conclusion that an operation was imperative and should be performed immediately. The King's thought was to keep faith with his people and go to the Abbey, and he did not give way until after a scene of prolonged and painful pleading. Treves said bluntly to him, "Then, Sir, you will go as a corpse." The operation followed at 11 o'clock am. The following morning the King was sitting up in bed smoking a cigar. The King died of bronchopneumonia on May 6th, 1910, and no account of any post-mortem examination was issued. Treves was made a Baronet by the King just before the operation.
There are still some graves of British soldiers who died in the Anglo Boer War that are yet to be identified, even after nearly 120 years. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, whose responsibility it is to maintain such graves, still receives phone calls and e-mails from people informing them of graves and monuments in obscure places. A recent communication included photos and map coordinates of one such grave in the garden of a house in the small settlement of Jericho in the bushveld north of the town of Brits.
As can be seen from a picture, that grave seems to have been looked after and has not been vandalised but there is no name on the plaque. Locating the place on the survey map was not difficult, the name of the town is clear enough and is located on the farm Palmietfontein portion 229JQ. In Steve Watt’s list of Imperial casualties in his book ‘In Memoriam’ there is a casualty listed as ‘Died of wounds’ at Palmietfontein, Regimental number 7951, name of Private G.E. Trowbridge of Hampshire, 3 on 18.02.1901. Unusually, there are no other details given because this entry originates from the official casualty list which has only those details.
Without the additional information that the settlement of Jericho is in this Palmietfontein, it would have been almost impossible to locate the place since Palmietfontein is a very common South African farm name. There is no mention of any engagement in that locality on that day in either ‘The Times History of the War in South Africa 1900-1902 Volume V’ or the official history ‘History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Volume 4’ so it must be presumed that the casualty resulted from a patrol or reconnaissance in the area.
The regiment is given as ‘Hampshire, 3’ meaning, according to Steve Watt’s usual notation, the 3rd Battalion of that regiment. Edgar Trowbridge of the 3rd Battalion was in fact a volunteer. This additional information came from Meurig Jones’s casualty roll. He served with the 2nd Battalion which was the only part of the regiment which served in the Anglo Boer War. It is clear from the list of casualties given in the official list that at least part of the regiment was based in Pretoria at that time.
An additional reference is ‘A Soldier’s Story’ by Murray Cosby Jackson. Jackson was a member of the Hampshire Regiment who kept a diary during his war service in South Africa. Most of the regiment were given horses and formed into mounted infantry (MI), originally the 7th MI and later the 27th MI. Their service was in the Orange Free State and the eastern Transvaal but not all of the regiment became MI. These others would have constituted the details in Pretoria and elsewhere.
It is gratifying that this grave and the name of this casualty can be positively established. Hopefully, measures can be put in place to preserve the grave for another 120 years.
This year, numbers of good books on military-historical subjects have been published – and with lockdown there has been lots of time to read them. One long-awaited volume has been Anne Samson’s Kitchener - The Man not the Myth. Anne hails from Boksburg but left many years ago to study in London and gain a doctorate in history. She is very much an expert on the Great War in East Africa. Kitchener has been long in gestation and surely is a significant work in the context of South Africa where Kitchener is regarded as the devil incarnate. On one occasion, a military history society talk on Kitchener, Anne was verbally attacked by one of the audience who advanced down the stairs as he expressed his utter disbelief at the statement that ‘Kitchener is one of my heroes’. Winning the war in South Africa was one of his many achievements but only an interlude in a long active military career – two and a half years out of more than forty. His final achievement was during the Great War. He did think the politicians very brave to have declared war on the mightiest military power on earth with having an army of their own and, besides, no means of raising one. For Kitchener to have raised an army of millions over the next few years was nothing short of miraculous. Political propaganda in South Africa has always dealt unfairly with Kitchener. Anne’s book should set this right to some extent but he will remain the monster in many circles.
One should not make firm opinions after reading just one book and Kitchener – The Man not the Myth is only the latest in a long series of biographies starting not long after his untimely death by drowning in 1916. One of the first is an admiring account in three volumes by Sir George Arthur.A counter-balance to this account is another by Lord Esher from 1921. With the centenary of the Boer War and then the Great War approaching, quite a number of modern accounts have appeared. The Fighting Nation by A.J. Smithers is a particularly interesting approach with a chapter on South Africa and published in 1994. Trevor Royle and Philip Warner had been in my library from a while back. Philip Magnus Portrait of an Imperialist from 1958 is still to be read. Conspiracy theories about his drowning off the Orkneys are legion but don’t look for them in Anne’s book!
Two scholarly books from the last year or two are Ian F.W. Beckett’s A British Profession of Arms from 2018 concerning the Victorian British Army, which ends with chapters on the Anglo Zulu War and the Anglo Boer War, and Keith Surridge’sManaging the South African War, 1899-1902.Both have much properly documented information and rigorous references. Edward M. Spiers’sThe Late Victorian Armyis another in similar vein but I have not yet been able to find a copy at a price within my means.
I have said before that Carel van der Merwe’s Kansvatter is one of the best books concerning a Boer general that I have read. I thought the title was a bit rich, calling a senior Boer general a chancer I thought might be going just a bit too far. But in fact this meticulously researched volume sees Ben Viljoen fit exactly to this description. Certainly an energetic man but misguided in many of his actions. His career in the U.S. and Mexico constitutes about half the book and the detailed research is absolutely meticulous. If you don’t read Afrikaans you are truly missing something!
The Second World War is a little too modern for me but nevertheless I am a huge fan of Ian Kershaw, well, SIR Ian Kershaw. One of his works is one called The End- Germany 1944-45 which deals with the last few months of that terrible conflict. That war was is (just) within living memory for me. The opening chapter concerns a young man wanting to surrender the town of Ansbach, who was executed and hung from a lamppost in April 1945 within hours of the American entry. As Kershaw says, ‘A country defeated in war almost always at some point seeks terms. Self-destruction by continuing to fight on to the last, down to almost total devastation and complete enemy occupation, is extremely rare. Yet that is what the Germans did in 1945. Why?’ Proper documented and referenced history, guaranteed to be fascinating! Kershaw also contributed a history of Europe, To Hell and Back – Europe 1914-1950, the first half of the twentieth century when mankind seemed to wish to be exterminated. And a further volume,The Global Age – Europe 1950-2017. Both are anything but boring!
Chris Ash has produced an atlas of the Anglo Boer War but I have not seen hard copy as yet. I am told that it is a quite beautifully produced volume. I have seen a number of the pages when in draft form which provide data of the deployment and the units involved as well as an account of what happened. Very useful for locating all these places and it is not just a coffee table book. It would make a nice present for your nephew at this time of year!
Finally, I lent a Ladysmith friend a number of my books on the Indian Army. Most are nothing special but one, John Gaylor’sSons of John Company is quite rare and was given to me by a friend of the author only a few weeks before he, a lifelong non-smoker, died of cancer of the lung. This is a listing of all the regiments of the army of the East India Company, all of which now constitute the Indian Army. In returning my books, my Ladysmith friend gave me R.J. Aggett’sThe Bloody Eleventh – History of the Devonshire Regiment, Volume II which covers 1815 to 1914 including, of course, the charge of the Devons on Wagon Hill on 6 January 1900. A magnificent volume! I have done much better than I deserve.
Everyone knows the horses roaming the fields of Asphodel, but just in case. Bucephalus was Alexander the Great’s horse; Copenhagen was the horse Wellington rode at Waterloo; Marengo was Napoleon’s favourite, brought back from Egypt in 1799; Vonolel was the war horse Lord Frederick Roberts rode on the 20 days march from Kabul to Kandahar in 1880 and rode again when he led the procession at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897; Black Bess is the horse highwayman Dick Turpin stole and galloped all the way from York to London!
Sixteen pages is more than enough to read and might well take you more than one session to do so. I hope none of it is soporific – like Peter Rabbitt’s lettuces!
The mistakes and opinions are all mine and I take full responsibility.
It remains only to wish you all the very best for the Festive Season.
10 December 2020