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SMETHWICKIAN BORDERERS – THEIR FIRST THREE BATTLES 1 month 3 weeks ago #80004

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My researches regarding Smethwickians and the Second Boer War are going well and I now have 147 names in my database with aspirations, based on the current rate of finding service records on FMP, of eventually doubling the total. Based on 347,00 British troops serving in the Second Boer War and the 1901 GB & Smethwick populations the true total should be somewhere around the 456 mark. All my 147 are not soldiers – five served in the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and one was honorary chaplain to the Cape Mounted Rifles.

To date, two served in the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment and they both wrote letters home in early 1900 which were reported on the same page of the Smethwick Telephone (local paper) of 31st March 1900.

I will deal with the shorter article first. On 23rd February, Private 3427 William Henry Sherwood(born in Smethwick) wrote to his sister. Enclosed with the letter was the “Queen’s present”, a half full tin of chocolate. William told his sister the remaining contents were hers to use as she liked but she must keep the tin – all his mates had sent their’s home as momentoes of their time in South Africa. He then wrote that while he arrived in South Africa with “a light heart” he was now rather down-hearted, following “three fights” leaving him unscathed but surrounded by dead and wounded mates. He then gave his sister the gruesome task of informing Sam, who had seen him off on the train at New Street Station in Birmingham, of the fate of one of the four members of his regiment he had met at the station – “he got his head and shoulder blown off on our first day in the field”. He ended on a more upbeat note writing that he expected it would all be over soon – it was to be another two and a quarter years before the war ended and two and a half years before William arrived back in GB on 17th August 1902. He was discharged from the army on 20th March 1904, 12 years after he first enlisted but his only service abroad was the 2 years and 246 days (less travel time) he spent in South Africa. He then returned to Smethwick to resume work at Mitchell & Butler’s Brewery at the bottom of Cape Hill. According to his service record he received the QSA with 4 clasps (TH, RoL, OFS & Tr) and the KSA with the two clasps.

The much longer and more detailed letter was from Private Aubrey Sprague, 1st Battalion Border Regiment. I cannot give you his regimental number as the only evidence I have of him serving in the Boer War is the Smethwick Telephone article – I cannot find his service record on FMP or a mention of him on a medal roll on Ancestry. I do know he actually started out life as Philip Aubrey H Sprague in the last quarter of 1876 in Birmingham and he was aged 5 or 6 when the family moved to Smethwick in 1882. At the time of the 1891 census they lived at 123 Baldwin Street, Smethwick and his father was employed as a “gas Inspector & collector”. When you read his letter you will realise Aubrey was an educated young man and the 1881 census described him as a “scholar” at the tender age of 4 and the 1891 one as a “school monitor”.

The three battles, or fights as William described them, were Willow Grange, Colenso and the action at Ventner’s Spruit during the Battle of Spion Kop. The newspaper editor used parts of Aubrey’s text to create sub headlines.
ON THE WAY TO LADYSMITH
A SMETHWICKIAN’S GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF THE FIGHTING
Private Aubrey Sprague has sent an interesting account of his experiences with General Buller’s forces in a letter to his father (Mr. J. Sprague, West Smethwick), written on January 27th. He says he received his father’s letter just after coming from an engagement which lasted from 20th till 26th with continuous fighting. He continues – “We are now encamped at Spearman’s Hollow, west of Colenso and about 15 miles from Ladysmith. We took three hills which were held by the enemy and could not make them budge any further. We have them nicely surrounded and we are also in possession of Van Reenen’s Pass. Natal is a splendid place for those who are fond of Alpine mountaineering, but for ‘T. A.’ cadet in the existing circumstances it is not nice by any means. It is simply one mass of hills and mountains, drifts, valleys, and ravines. It is very fertile, and affords grand pasture for the thousands of cattle, sheep, and goats that roam here. It is not very thickly populated, and for any person with energy, with say love of farming, it would pay him to emigrate here after the war. There are abundances of fruit trees (though, at the time of writing this, the fruit season is not yet here), such as apricots, peaches, pine-apples, etc, also growing wild the prickly pear. I, as a soldier, however, have very little time to admire the flora of this country. My time has been occupied far more than I quite care about. You ask for my experiences in my baptism of fire. To tell the truth, every time we are engaged with the enemy it is like being baptised afresh. Willow Grange, on November 23rd, was where we came (i.e. the Border Regiment) in contact with the enemy for the first time.
WE MARCHED ALL NIGHT
from Estcourt and took up position together with the West Yorks, West Surreys, East Surreys, and Durham Light Infantry. We got as far as a long wall built of stones before we had any notice taken of us. Private Burns and myself were in advance of the rest acting as scouts, and we were near to the aforesaid wall when bang came the first shell between us and well over our heads, bursting behind the firing line and in front of the supporters. This was quickly followed by another and another. The first one caused me to duck, but at the second I thought I looked unsoldierlike ducking, so I put two more inches on my chest and got up to the wall where I knew I should be safe from rifle fire. The shells began to get a bit thick, and the East Surreys, who got into action at 500 yards, were, on account of the shells bursting against the wall, compelled to retire. My comrades bore the firing bravely, and moved in order as though on parade, and in fact, for my part, it might have been a big field day except for the
GHASTLY LOADS THE STRETCHERS BORE.
We were ordered to retire, and my regiment held Beacon Hill till the main body retired, and here we gave the enemy a taste of our rifles that must have accounted for a good five of them, although we lost a good few. Our next was Colenso. Three brigades attacked – Hildyards’s the right, Hart’s the left and Lyttleton’s the supports. In front of us (Hart’s Brigade) was the Tugela, between us and it however, was an open piece of ground with not a bit of cover, and which was being swept by a terrible rifle fire from the enemy with now and then a shell thrown in to relieve the monotomy. The firing lines advanced in splendid order till they got a little cover from rifle fire behind a ridge just in front of the river. We (Borderers), the supports, were ordered to lie down, and we did so with bullets popping about us and taking off one or two. It was while lying down like this that
MY RIFLE WAS KNOCKED OUT OF MY HANDS
by a Mauser bullet which also knocked a piece of wood out of the stock near the magazine. We then advanced to strengthen the firing lines, and advancing through the terrible zone of fire was like being out in the rain, the bullets whistling uncomfortably past our ears and giving you the sensation of having upset a beehive. We reached cover, and I am sorry to say nothing like as strong as when we got up to advance. I took particular and careful notice of every man’s face near me, and each one bore the same resolute expression, pale, and with eyes brighter than usual with excitement, the only way one could see they were affected by what was going on. I often think of that speech of Henry V at Harfleur to his men “Once more to the breach” etc, and could trace the summoning up of the blood, the stiffening of the sinews, etc. I went through it all
AS ONE IN A DREAM
knowing nothing of fear or nervousness, and my brave comrades were all the same. We saw some of the good old “Dubs” get across the river and fix bayonets, getting into the more advanced of the enemy’s trenches, but while there a terrible shell and rifle fire played mad havoc among them, and they were ordered to retire. Many of the poor Irish boys were drowned in crossing the river, what with the weight of ammunition, etc, and the fact there were barbed wire entanglements in the water. We were ordered at last to retire, much to our surprise and disgust, and in retiring we lost more than in the advance, shells and bullets coming at us quite thickly. I saw some pitiful scenes in retiring that will
NEVER LEAVE MY MEMORY.
It was then that I saw that a good few of the ant-hills which are dotted all over the country were white-washed, and their range had evidently been taken by the cunning Boer. Round them the casualties were thickest. Behind one of them I saw two brave Connaught lads, condoling with each other in the sweetest of brogues, and both dangerously wounded. Further on I came across the corpse of a Dublin Fusilier, nearby was his helmet with which I intended to cover his face, but it was filled with blood and brains. I next saw another of the same regiment carrying his foot in his hand, it having been taken off by a shell. He said he wouldn’t allow any part of himself be left behind and ran the risk of capture. I then gave a poor fellow a drink of water, and he thanked me with his eyes and expired. We had in our brigade
600 CASUALTIES
and in my regiment 50 of them. We had three officers wounded. We have had another ‘do’ with the enemy since then near Spearman’s Hill. The engagement lasted from 20th to 26th January inclusive (7 days), and we lost one officer killed and four wounded, five men killed and seven died of wounds, and 125 wounded and one missing. We suffered heaviest in the brigade. We are now resting. We drove the enemy for two or three positions and then shelled and fired at them daily. We suffered not only from the firing but from lying there on the hill with naught to shade us from the sun by day (107 in the shade) and wind and rain by night. I expect the troops will get ague, fever, etc, when all is over from that engagement. I have neither space nor yet time or I would give an account of the affair in detail. We are now again under welcome tents, enjoying a deserved rest. General Buller gave the troops a speech to-day (29th) telling them by being at the last engagement he had found the main key to Ladysmith, and intended to get there ere the week is over, so look to hear no more from me for a little time. If I am once more amongst the fortunate I will let you know all if I can get the paper, which is very rare here.
THE TROOPS ARE A CREDIT TO THEIR COUNTRY
and are unaffected by the little checks they have received. We only want to get at them with the steel, this long distance fighting being monotonous is not to Tommy’s taste at all. I cannot give you much of an idea of the Boer, having only seen a few prisoners. They looked contemptible enough. One thing I know for a fact, it is less the Boers than the German officers, gunners etc. They (the Boers) appear to be a strange conglomeration of that is mean and good. We cannot judge them by the abuse of the white flag as that has been done only by the scum, not by the better class Boer. They are good to ‘T. A.’ generally. They are not by any means good rifle shots and are indebted to
ENGLISH, SCOTCH AND IRISH TRAITORS
for the tactics and the big guns are fixed by the hypocritical Germans. I had no idea that a battle would be all it is. It is only as a soldier taking part that you can see all the horrors of war. I look upon the Boer as being a religious fanatic easily led by those who have come in contact with the English and other intelligent peoples. I know that their families are being kept in shameful ignorance of their true losses and that lying, hypocritical, ‘Stead-like’ Kruger has more to account to than I would care for. I could, if I had the convenience, write a book on what I have been through up to now.”

Back in March 1900 pedantic readers may have castigated Aubrey on his slight misquote of Shakespeare but would they have correctly associated the speecch with Harfleur rather than Agincourt and remembered the content of the seventh line – “Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood”? One has to wonder if Aubrey took a copy of the works of Shakepeare to war. I can only find one other mention of Boers marking anthills as range finders and then it says chalk rather than whitewash. Neither of the two accounts I have read of members of Hart’s brigade drowning in the Tugela mention underwater barbed wire as playing a part. I was also surprised by his view on the marksmanship of the Boers but it appears there is some debate on the matter. I presume the long letter was written in at least two goes with the first part on 27th and the second part on 29th January.

When Aubrey left the army he did not return to Smethwick. While he was in South Africa his father defected from the gas industry to the burgeoning electricity industry and moved to Prescot, Merseyside where he worked for the British Insulated Wire Company which in 1925 became British Insulated Callender’s Cables (BICC). In the summer of 1907 Aubrey married a local lass in Prescot.
I think the Private Burns mentioned by Aubrey was Private 4782 James Burns, 1st Battalion Border Regiment. His service record stated he was severely wounded during “action at Spion Kop” on 21st January 1900. He suffered a fractured jaw and badly wounded shoulder and was invalided home arriving in GB on 9th April 1900. He was discharged just over 3 months later “medically unfit for further service”. He was Irish and lived in County Armagh.
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SMETHWICKIAN BORDERERS – THEIR FIRST THREE BATTLES 1 month 3 weeks ago #80018

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That's a very interesting letter!
Smethwick, I'm sending you a private message to find out more about it.
Rob
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SMETHWICKIAN BORDERERS – THEIR FIRST THREE BATTLES 1 month 3 weeks ago #80027

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This may be a photo of your man, Private 4782 James Burns, 1st Battalion Border Regiment, wounded on 21st January 1900. He suffered a fractured jaw and shoulder. There were hundreds of wounded on those 2 days, but a jaw wound is unusual, hence it may be him - though we don't see his shoulder wound in the photo. The photo is taken at Maj Moir's 11th Brigade Field Hospital on Fairview Farm, at around midday on 21st January 1900. Most of the Borders' casualties were late on 20th or in the morning of 21st. The casualties from the battle of Venter's Spruit (also called Tabanyama or Rangeworthy) were brought here. On the Causalty roll he is shown as having being wounded at Spearman's Camp on 22 January but this just means he was sent to Treves' No 4 Stationary Hospital at Spearman's the next day - as all the serious casualties were.
I have other photos of the action and the wounded from that day, PM me if interested.
The GPS of where the photo was taken is as follows: -28.65031, 29.46837 so if you put this into google maps it'll take you there.
Rob

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