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A Letter from A.L. (Gat) Howard, C.M.R. to G. Shipley Colt Guns 1 month 4 days ago #84245

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Good Evening and Hello to Everyone:

Please find below for your reading pleasure a transcript of a letter from Major A. L. Howard, Machine Gun Officer, Canadian Mounted Rifles and Mr. George Shipley of Colt, in Providence, Rhode Island. The original letter is in very poor condition and extremely hard to read and had to use the wood alcohol method which took me nearly a month to do. The spelling is as shown in the letter with question mark.

I hope you enjoy.


Bankfontein, eight miles north Middleburg , Transvaal
and In The Field

July 30th, - September 5th, 1900

George Shipley Esq.
Providence, R.I., U.S.A.

Agreeable to my promise to you when I left Canada I will send you a short account of our trip so far in South Africa. In this case promises are promises as they grow older.

After leaving Halifax and until we crossed the Gulf Stream we had rough weather, but in a few days the weather cleared, the sun came out brightly, and everyone was able to go out on deck again. Then commenced our enjoyable trip of thirty days to Capetown (?). The officers of the vessel were very obliging and did everything in their power to make things pleasant for both officers and men, and with the company of our lady nurses time passed away very pleasantly, spending most of it watching for whales and dolphins and going for meals.

A short stop was in Cape Verde Island to telegraph and we take on some fruit. We then proceeded to Cape Town and nothing then happened of any consequence until Old Neptune stepped aboard, crossing the line, initiate and chastise some of his disobedient sons. I was surprised on the coolness of the weather, and did not find it disagreeably hot thru the whole passage . In fact, I think most of us have taken to South African lighter clothing than we should have.

We sighted Table Mountain, Cape Town, late in the afternoon, and entered the harbor during the night, and I will guarantee you all were up before sunrise the next morning to see the beautiful sight thus presenting it self to us. Before us lay Table Mountain with its table cloth of clouds rolling down its side. This is a sight hard to describe, I can only liken it to a bank of fog rolling along the top of a valley until it reaches the edge then rolling down again to the bottom. In the harbor were anchored over two hundred steamers and square riggers used in the transportation of troops, supplies and coal to South Africa. After being declared clear by the health officer we proceeded to the dock to unload and restock. We were second by coincidence behind a steamer with troops from England, followed by steamers from every British Colony loaded with soldiers for South Africa. This also included a steamer with troops, horses and East Indians from India, and as these vessels ran alongside each other, cheer after cheer would be given by one and answered by the others.

Time was so precious that the Laurentian laden as she was, was unloaded and able to leave the dock that night. This work is done rapidly by coolies and blacks, and black Cape Boys, who are the only laborers in this country, and know their place, thanks to the Dutch.

We then proceeded to Green Point. Our camp was covered on two sides by the ocean beach, but but while green by name it is not at this time of the year green by nature. As this is the dry season and the soil being nothing but sand and head winds prevailing, you can judge what our location was like when we went to shave, as I have seen everything covered with one eight inch of sand in the morning, including our hands and faces. Never the less the men were very light hearted and did very little growling except for not being sent to the front. We were able to keep our throats washed thanks to our friends Gooderham and Walker, also they make in Cape Colony very good wine which sells cheaply. We arrived almost too late for the press but was presented with over a ton of grapes by a Mr. Soloman, agent for Massey Machine Co. in South Africa, to whom all Canadians are greatly indebted for the kindness he shows to them while here. We also had pomegranate, melons and other tropical fruits. Think of this while you were having snow balls for fruit, which seemed very strange to us.

Cape Town itself is not much of a city, and probably was never as lively before, as we have encamped in our vicinity over thirty thousand troops of all branches waiting transportation to the front. All the merchants and those of means live in the suburb in very pretty places, made of a soft brick and covered with cement, and surrounded by all kinds of tropical trees, fruits and flowers in profusion. Most of the trees are palms, blue gum, and species of pine which grow very rapidly and also are found in profusion. Cactus fifteen or twenty feet high, and also the American or Century plant with it's tall towering stalk of fifteen to twenty feet with it's branch of snow white flowers as the trunk is large as a barrel, towering above all other shrubbery, which presents a very pretty sight. Just to top all the profusion with which they cultivate the senses, scented English Violet, and by bordering all their beds and passage ways the scent from which filling the air. But with all this, I must say I prefer the climate of Canada and the snowstorms to the sand storms here.

I have been attached for passage and until arrival of my battalion, to Col. Drury's battery which made it seem very much like home, as I was with him in '85 in the North West and my old friend Worthington being in the battery also. Nory has behaved himself very well, except when taking baths on board the steamer and visiting the horse boards of which he is the Chief Coroner, and where the battery left me in Cape Town to get to the front, I felt like leaving my small popguns and going with them as it was like being left alone in a strange land.

After watching day by day for the arrival of the Mounted Rifles who had been reported as being lost at sea, their boat was finally sighted, and after lying in harbour a day or some the men were landed and then my work began after almost a month of sightseeing and loafing. I turned over to the Second Battalion which arrived first, two of my machine guns and awaited quietly the arrival of the First Battalion which finally arrived on March 26th.

After making my detail and horsing my guns, we started on April 4th for Stellenbosch, which we reached after a two day march. There we received our compliment of new horses, and left by rail for the front on April 10th. We arrived at Springfontein, the terminus of our railroad journey on April 15th and was assigned to General Hutton's Brigade of Mounted Infantry, and started our long horseback ride next morning. While at Springfontein our men made a one night sortie and captured several Boer Officers that were in our vicinity. From that time until April 25 th on which date we reached Bloemfontein, we were marching through the country accompanied by several other regiments, including the C.I.V. Of London. The country consisted of rolling prairie with a heavy growth of grass that looks very tempting, but which our horses refused to touch, being of a strong aromatic flavor.

Bloemfontein is not very much of a city, not near as large as Sherbrooke, and most of the dwellings are made of mud brick, covered with cement, and galvanized iron roofs. Here I had the pleasure of meeting our First Contingent, and it seemed like meeting old friends from home but there were many missing faces which had been left behind on the Fields of South Africa. But they all seemed jolly and looking forward with pleasure to the time when they would once more return to Canada.

We were sent out into the country about seven miles from Bloemfontein, there to receive new horses in place of those that died, and exchanged our old ones. This was Fisher's (?) Farm and belongs to the Secretary of the Free State who was then fighting us.

On May 1st after a short rest we left in battle array as we were entering the enemy's country and I here give you our routine for each day from this time forward. Reveille from three to four in the morning, get breakfast, and leave from five to six, fight if we meet the enemy, and reach camp in the evening, get supper, go to picket, or go to bed.

Being on the left flank of the column, our part of the business was to turn the right flank of the enemy, riding across country regardless of roads or any obstacles.

On may 4th we received our first baptism of fire which was heralded by the enemy at the front shelling our advance guard. This was at Brandford. Our two battalions were halted a short speech made to us by Colonel Aldeveson (?), our Brigadier in Command, who gave us some words as what we were to do and then started in open order of about twenty paces apart at a trot, to try and turn the flank of the battery shelling us three miles away. As soon as we hove in sight of the battery they shelled us, and I found it some what different from old times, when we could see the smoke of the cannon while now we could only hear the report, followed by the whizzing of the shell, and then the explosion. After turning their flank and running into heavy rifle fire from their support and skirmishers, which also you cannot see at one thousand to two thousand yard range, we were ordered to retire, dismount and form skirmish line and hold position, which we did, the enemy slowly retiring before us.

This being our men's first, first baptism of fire, there being over fifty shells thrown and bursting among us, they behaved as well as steady as any men I have seen, and were a pride to themselves and Canada. And I must say it was even trying to myself to charge guns you cannot see, and only judge in what position they are by the sounds.

The enemy having retired during the night, we followed them up the next morning and engaged them at a place called Constancia (?), where the same tactics were repeated, the enemy always retiring. On May 6th they masses at Vet River, where heavy fighting was done, the enemy occupying the river bed and the kopje beyond. By the way those river beds make the best fortifications being cut very deep by the rains during the wet season into which men and horses can ride being completely sheltered on all sides except overhead, and when our artillery opens on them with shrapnel, they get out of there like a pack of sheep with a dog after them. This was a very hot engagement that lasted all day, but there is one thing a Boer cannot stand, and that is to have his flank turned. When this is done, he is off like a shot.

In this fight at the Vet River, Lieutenants Borden and Turner with seven men swam the river and drove the Boers from the other side. This is the place where I believe Krugher stated that he would make the river run with “English Blood”, but I mist say that when I crossed it, it did not look very re but tasted rather good. It may have had a little Canadian dirt in it for all that.

On May 9th at Welgelagger (?) we again encountered the Boers, and after a stubborn resistance they withdrew. On the 13th we reached Kroonstad where we remained in camp until May 20th, resting and waiting for transport and provisions, on which day we again left.

Nothing of importance happened on the 26th we crossed the Vaal River, the boundary of the Transvaal. Here we expected them to make a stand which they fail to do, and we passed over and beyond quietly. Nothing occurred further until May 29th at Dorn Kop (?) on Klip River, the enemy formed in great force for the defence of Johannesburg, and have occurred our first experience with the Pom-Pom which is a machine gun, firing a shell of one pound weight, at the rate of about three hundred a minuet. We were ordered to advance, capture and hold a kopje covered by the enemy's Krupp cannon and a pom,-pom. While General French's Corps maneuvered around their left flank. We were obliged to gallop across an open plain of five thousand yards, in complete working range of their guns and occupy the kopje which we did, shells and pom-poms bursting around and among us all the scary/ hairy (?) time I can tell you and four horses and a gun are no small mark to shoot at and I can tell you further that when you have twenty five pom-poms in a ring around you and among you in a fifty yard radius of the gun at any time, you would think you were in a corn popper. But I will say this much, that it is the moral and not the mortal effect which causes one to dread the pom-pom as in all their fire, shell and pom-pom, not a man or horse were hit. We held the kopje all that day, that night and the next day, enabling General French to flank them on the left and occupy Johannesburg. We retired, in good order thru heavy shell fire, and the Canadian Mounted Rifles were complimented by General French for their behavior and holding the kopje which was the key to the city, and which had it been lost would have meant the cutting off of his troops. We did not visit Johannesburg but slipped around their left to about eight miles distance to try and cut off their retreat.

On June 2nd I had a small brush with the enemy's rearguard, but they were out of range of my guns. We contrived to keep an the extreme left flank our objective being to come in on the rear of Pretoria and cut off the retreat of the enemy from that place. June 4 th we came up with them at a place called Dyke (?), said to be the key to the entrance of the back of Pretoria. Here they gave us a very short sharp fight, but were evidently taken by surprise as their big guns they intended using here had not come up. Their ammunition had arrived which they were obliged to abandon and was found lying in one of the gullies, a sample of which I shall bring home with me. After an all day fighting they retired from this position to another 5 miles distance, and the next morning were orders to leave that, thus leaving to us a safe entrance into Pretoria. And on June 6th at five minuets to twelve A.M. The Canadian Mounted Rifles rode thru Pretoria with Canada's ensign flying, and marched seven miles beyond the town went into camp.

Pretoria is built between two large ranges of kopjes and consists of some very fine buildings for this country, also some fine residences for foreign consuls and others. Most of the buildings are small one story cottages built of mud and red brick, most of the mercantile business is done by two firms who hold concessions from the Transvaal Government as all business of that kind was sold to the highest bidder. The city was also defended by several large forts and batteries which cost several millions of dollars from which the Boers removed all the guns not firing a shot in its defence. A great many Boers gave up their arms and have taken the oath, but you can see by their faces that if they had half a chance they would do the same over, and since our arrival a conspiracy was discovered to regain the city, but their plots were baffled and all foreigners except Americans and British forces to leave the country, and women and children of Boers fighting in the field were sent to their laagers,

On June 10th after a short rest we left our camp for a short reconnaissance in force toward the north. On the same day we met the enemy at Kamela Drift (?) in strong positions on two kopje's and after a sharp engagement for two days the Boers retired. To show how near to being killed or wounded a person may be a fifteen pound shell from one of the Boer guns fell among our men and horses, thru the neck of a horse into the ground, but did not explode with fifty men and horses within a sod square, and strangest of all the horse was not killed but followed us for two days and as far as I know is still living. Another relevance of what a small bullet will do, one of our horses was hit in the head at twenty eight hundred yards range, and dropped dead in his tracks.

A little instance with playing with balls, not fastball, which happened to myself at this place where my gun was in a position on top of the kopje with a two thousand yard range of the enemy with the sun setting behind us and one gun presenting a good target at which two hundred shots were fired. I was sitting on the foot rests when a bullet struck the outer edge, stripping the case from it, throwing the case back into my hand which was as fast a ball as ever I caught, but it did no harm. At this place I saw the fight of a lifetime. A Boer Artillery battery of two guns attacking one of our batteries, in the opening at five thousand yards with as fine a specimen of gunnery as ever I witnessed, but British marksmanship prevailed, and the enemy shortly after withdrew from their position. How either party lived thru this little hell I cannot imagine. At the same time a duel was going on between a Boer pom-pom and one of our own, at three thousand yards range with the same results. The next morning we followed the enemy up, driving them across a range of hills, and returned to our camp.

On July 4th we left our camp to follow up the enemy in another direction on the 8th we came up with them at Reits Vlai (?). Here we had a very hot engagement, and I has a chance to bring my baby The Colt Automatic, into action as I wished. About this little incident I will give as one of my parts in the general action. I was assisted by S. Sergeant Holland and Driver Smith. This gun is very light, both in itself and carriage and is handled very easily, needing but one horse, just the gang for such work as we did this day.

I was ordered by the Commanding Officer to proceed with the English Mounted Infantry (Regulars) to support their skirmish line. We started at a gallop and went part way to our position they fired at us from a Kopji twenty five hundred yards distant it was so hot, that I was ordered to take position and silence their fire, we galloped to within fifteen hundred yards, went into action and drove them over the Kopji, with five hundred rounds. Before they could reform the Mounted Infantry had taken position beneath the Kopji, formed a skirmish line, advancing to the top. I reached there at the same time, unlimbered and came into action ( small section is not legible ). One hundred and fifty Boers had reformed on the opposite side of the Kopji and started for the top. Their fire was so hot that over twenty M.I. skirmishers were obliged to retire with five wounded, three with the guns. And so close was if for us that I was obliged to disengage the guns and send it to the rear with Sergeant Holland, I called for my gun horse to limber up and run my chances of retiring, which I finally did with three bullets in the wheel of my gun and several others which were very close to me. At the same time Sergeant Hollands horse was shot and mine also. They jumped completely over the holder and started for the Boer lines but their fire was so warm from our infantry retiring, that the Boers retired again to the nearest Kopji. After a few minutes rest we made up our minds to advance again. We crawled to the top and found that the enemy had not our horses along the hill. Not wishing to lose horses and outfit we pushed the guns to the top of the Kopji. While I fired the guns to keep back the Boers, Sergeant Holland went below and securing the horses brought them to the top. He then took the gun and opened fire on the Boers while I, with assistance from one of the M.I.'s who had lain on the Kopji during the retreat and advance, being unable to retire and undisturbed by the Boers, he carried the wounded over the Kopji. By this time our skirmish line had advanced again and taking position with the guns on the Kopji top in a short time the Boers opened on us again and were turning my left flank, when we opened up on them with the Colt and they retired like a pack of sheep. But their fire was so strong on our front and left that we had to retire a second time. Then I had a chance to play them an old trick. Having the Winchester Carbine with me, I saw a Boer aim and fire at me at two hundred and fifty yards. Dropping as it I had been shot, he jumped up to run forward, but he found me very much alive and on my knee waiting for him. He dropped on his knee when I fired and I think he has gone to visit the Boer's happy hunting ground as I did not see him stir afterwards. Then emptying my Winchester at the rest, I cut quickly down the hill and joined the command. I think we had the best of them on this as our ambulance with one found wounded was obliged to go with them into the Boer lines that night. The attendants told us the Boers had fifteen killed and several wounded including their commandant. My men were complimented by the General for their good work, I considered they did all right, and were as brave as any soldiers in this world. This engagement lasted all day, the Boers retiring during the night.

Here also our battalion sustained it's first losses, having six men and one officer wounded. We finally retired to our camp leaving a small picket.

On July 12th we again attacked the Boers, at Reitsfontein (?). After a sharp fight we drove the enemy back. Here was another casualty, Lieutenant Young. While mounting his horse was hit by a piece of shell, carrying away a slice of his hat and slightly wounding him in the head.

On the 16th we again engaged the enemy at Witpoort (?). They had driven in our outlying pickets at this place in the morning, and we were ordered to proceed from the camp to their support at once. After a sharp engagement lasting all day, the Boers were driven from their position. Here we lost two of our officers, Lieutenant Borden who was shot thru the heart/head (?) and Lieutenant Burch who was hit in the back and thru the lung, both of them dying at once. Two men were wounded Mallory (?) being shot in the eye and nose, and Brown thru the lung, both of whom are doing well.

I was ordered to remain with my guns and assist the Second Battalion in holding the Kopji.

On July 22nd we received orders to retire and left the top and gone into the valley below when the order was countermanded. I remarked that I had better take my gun back at once and did so, accompanied by ten or fifteen of our battalion. I had hardly been there ten minuets when four Boer Scouts appeared chasing a team under the Kopji. I opened up on them with my Colt and they retired with one disabled when about a hundred Boers appeared on a Kopji across the valley, but thinking discretion the better part of valor stayed outside range..

On the 23rd of July we left the Kopji for our camp to join a general advance on Middleberg about eighty miles north east of Pretoria, after a week outpost duty on the Kopji day and night.

On July 27th we again came up with the Boers and after a very sharp engagement drove them back and then advanced to Middleberg which was found evacuated. We left there on July 29th and ( there are two lines that I cannot decipher ). It is now half past eight P>M> - Orders are reveille, four o'clock, formed at six, inspection for a reconnaissance in force, which I shall tell you about when I return.

Good news has reached us tonight of the surrender of one of DeWit's Lieutenants with three thousand men which we hope is true there is also a rumor that tomorrow we may wind up the fighting in this section, but Boers are like fleas, and when you think you have them they are not there and show up somewhere else.

August 3 rd, we returned from reconnaissance after a slight skirmish. We arrived at Belfast August 26, forming a junction with Generals Roberts, Buller, French and Pole-Carew. We had three days sharp fighting and have driven the Boers into the mountains, which commenced here. Before us stretches range after range, peak after peak and within sight of our camp is a monument devoting the highest point in Transvaal, 7700 ft. Ice has formed here the last two nights.

At one time there was 30 guns from 12 lbs. To 6 inch, playing on a spot one quarter mile square of the Boer entrenchments, and which finally drove them from these position, in conjunction with infantry, that charged four times. The enemy are now in full retreat followed by French's Cavalry.

September 1 st, we today received notice of being permanently stationed here as General Hutton has been appointed Military Governor of this district and we have been told that we have done more than our share of fighting and deserve a rest.

Word has just been received of the release of 2000 of our prisoners by French's cavalry.

This will give you an idea of what we've passed through since leaving.

You can judge some of the surprise which one receives as while walking away from one of our batteries while I was watching the bombardment and when near camp was surprised by the whistling of a shell from the Boer 6 inch gun over five miles away which burst within 100 yards of me. This is the effect of smokeless powder over long ranges, as you can hear no report from it's gun, and can only know what's coming by the whistling of the shell. The accuracy can be imagined for where visiting for where visiting (the repetition was A. L. Howards ) the position of the gun which was replied by our 5 inch, to find that most of our four shells were within 50 yards square. We finally silenced the gun.

I find that the best machine gun in the field is the Colt Automatic, I have only one with me, which has been in every engagement and does good exaction up to 3000 yards, knocking out of action in one fight a maxim, 1 pounder (pom-pom). It is mounted on a Dundonald carriage and with some improvements which I will suggest will be adapted for the British Army. It can a accompany cavalry anywhere and can be taken up any Kopji and in competition with galloping and tripod maxims come into action in 10 seconds, maxim 55, out of action 5 seconds ( Maxim 55).

While at one of our camps I was talking to the Turkish and Italian attaches on Roberts Staff they expressed an interest in the carbine caliber 303 that you just made and I think you should send one to their governments.

It had been very lucky for us thus far, that a great many of the Boer shells have not burst owing to a defect in the percussion fuse for as a general thing, their artillery firing has been very accurate owing to the presence of German gunners.

You can see we have done some marching and a little fighting having been in fourteen engagements. As for a rest, this morning don't look like it. The Boers attacked the out posts of our Second Battalion, capturing 7 men and wounding 2 officers and seven men in camp having with them two fifteen pounder's and a 1 pounder maxim ( pom-pom ) mind you, this in the rear of our columns that have advanced and with guerilla warfare which they are now adopting their 15,000 men which is all I think they have now in the field, can keep the British Army of 250,000 in the field for the next year if they wish, and I expect our rest will terminate into an order into the field.

News reached us this morning that 3000 Boers have taken the field under DeWit in the Orange Free State which means that our lines of communications shall be cut probably every day.

I have only received six letters since last February and cannot say that this will reach you as our mail has been repeatedly captured and burnt in transit. I do not expect to see Canada before Christmas if then, which will make three winters in succession for me. We receive old England for review.

I should like to come out to this country after my returning for a years hunting in the North and if I can raise a party shall do so. Should not object to go down with you to the club for a dinner all around cannot complain with the help of geese, turkeys and chicken which tried to fill me have lived very well. And when you consider that all the forage and rations for this army have had to be transported by ox and mule I believe it has been done as well as possible .

If I were a young man, I would stop in this country and raise stock, horses etc. and could retire in ten years with a fortune. As for minerals, I think it is one of the best for coal, iron, gold and diamonds. As for the farm land it is ( this section unreadable ) in I ever saw as you could take a horse and cross in a bee line across country anywhere. There are no fish in the streams though and in the fall no streams to speak of, the water caught in large ponds in the rainy season, but artisan wells could be built anywhere to give a large supply of water.

North of here there are any amount of all types of large game. We are now 60 miles from the Portuguese boundary line to Delagona Bay (?) and I can now see the object of England in acquiring this for a coaling station, as this whole country is one solid mass of coal fields. Within one mile of us in a large mine with a fine vein 30 ft. wide of good steam coal.

You can judge in what position we are at present as when we left Cape Town our Battalion consisting of 300 men and 29 officers, all we can muster at present is 93 men and 8 officers, 2 of which have joined us lately. The rest have either been killed, wounded of set back sick and I am the only officer jn A Squadron who has passed thru the whole. The old boy must be good to his own or an old horse for a long race, tho I'll leave that for you to judge.

I have been very good since being in this country being obliged to sleep alone with exceptions of now and then of a reminder that something crawling around not large enough to shoot. Give my regards to all inquiring friends and will try to get down and see all on my return to have a taste of the goodies of salt water once more. There is no use of you answering as it will take two months before received it and I hope of leaving before then.....
I Remain
Fraternally Yours

Major Can. Mac. Guns, C.M.R.
Life Member
Past-President Calgary
Military Historical Society
O.M.R.S. 1591
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A Letter from A.L. (Gat) Howard, C.M.R. to G. Shipley Colt Guns 1 month 3 days ago #84247

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Thank you for transcribing the letter. It is very interesting and includes some feedback on their merchandise although I was expecting more perhaps.

His sign-off is sad given his later history.
Dr David Biggins
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A Letter from A.L. (Gat) Howard, C.M.R. to G. Shipley Colt Guns 1 month 3 days ago #84255

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djb wrote: Mike,

Thank you for transcribing the letter. It is very interesting and includes some feedback on their merchandise although I was expecting more perhaps.

His sign-off is sad given his later history.

I agree. You have to think who he was writing to at the time a Senior Member of the Colt Company who provided the Machine Gun for free to show off to other countries.....

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