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Major G.F.Ellison ephemera 8 months 4 weeks ago #91128

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A decade ago I stumbled upon two display boxes filled with ephemera brought back from the Boer War by Major G.F. Ellison (Royal Warwickshire Regiment) who was Assistant Provost Marshall under Lt. General Clery of the 2nd Division of the 1st Army Corps.

The boxes were not in the best of shape and the light-exposed contents was stuck with rusted nails to crumbling cardboard. Somehow these had ended up in an attic in the US and, given the fact that many people there believe the world is 4000 years old and that a bloke wearing a bra should be addressed as madam, the boxes could easily have ended up in a skip.

The items in the boxes mostly relate to the Battle of Colenso and Relief of Ladysmith. Some are historically important, others just unusual and interesting mementoes from the period. I intend to feature the box contents over a few separate posts.

The first item is an original pigeon-post from Major Altham, Chief Intelligence officer in besieged Ladysmith, to Estcourt [H.Q. of Redvers Buller.] The message was flown out of Ladysmith in two halves on the 22nd of November 1899 and both arrived at destination on same date. However, one half was not noticed until the 26th. The post contained a miniaturized sketch of a map of Boer positions around Ladysmith with a written message at the back. The map apparently was used in devising the battle plan for what is now known as the Battle of Colenso and has been reproduced in various contemporary and post war publications. Poignant detail is that the map was sketched on human skin obtained from the hospital in the town. I add the notes that accompanied the pigeon mail.

The pigeon post came with a signed note -on Attorney General Office, Natal, letterhead- from Captain Percy Scott (R.N, commandant of Durban) dated 22.11. 1899 (at 4.30).

The message at the back of the pigeon post reads according to the carton card attached to Scottt’s note:
To Estcourt. Situation unchanged, all well. A main force of enemy still South of this. Signed Altham, A.A.G. for I 22.11.99

“A half of Map, right half sent by pigeon today” – Commandant Durban [Scott]

No News reached here since 13th
True copy (signed) A Kenny-Hasketh (?) Capt HD

“Pigeon arrived on 22nd but was not noticed that it had a message, owner only brought it in now” – Percy Scott commandant 26 Nov.99

Received by Col. Hamilton A.A.G. 2nd Division 26/11/99

Major Ellison attached a card to these papers which reads as follows: The above photograph was sent out of Ladysmith on 2 pigeons. Left half arrived late and reached General Clery gummed on back of [Percy Scott’s] card. Message on back of both halves as detailed on the card. Message came out on a pigeon. It is on skin obtained from a hospital in Ladysmith. Captain Percy Scott R.N. was commandant of Durban in Nov.Dec 1899
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Major G.F.Ellison ephemera 8 months 4 weeks ago #91130

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Major Ellison Ephemera part two. This is another original pigeon-post dispatched by Major Altham, Chief Intelligence officer in besieged Ladysmith, via Durban to Estcourt [H.Q. of Redvers Buller.] The post (3,5 x 4,5 cm) consists of a micro-filmed sketch of a map of Potgieter’s Pass (Drift) detailing enemy positions. The folds that resulted from having been rolled up around a pigeon leg are still clearly visible. At the back it carries the following message.

Commandant, Durban
“Please forward to G.O.C. Estcourt. The sketch is not a survey but a compilation from verbal description of persons acquainted with the locality. Situation here unchanged, troops well and cheery. Main force of enemy still to south. No news since 13.” (signed) E.A. Altham A.A.G, Ladysmith 12.11.99

The message was flown out on November 12, 1899 and, according to a note attached to it by Captain Percy Scott R.N (of Naval Canon fame and at that time Military Commander at Durban) only received at 1.30 on Wednesday the 22nd of November. This message also seems to have been flown out in halves by two different pigeons possibly to reduce the risk of the entire message falling into enemy hands. The last part of the message (no news since 13) possibly relates to a number rather than a date. The importance of the message lies in the fact that the sketch was used by the Field Intelligence Department to draw up Buller’s war map that he relied upon when drafting his battle orders for the Battle of Colenso on the 15th of December 1899.
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Major G.F.Ellison ephemera 8 months 4 weeks ago #91132

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Ellison Ephemera part 3: The most significant item in the display boxes was Buller’s original draft orders for the Battle of Colenso, handwritten on 9 pages ripped from a standard Army notebook. I have decided to include all pages to allow the interested reader some insight into the thought processes leading up to the well-documented final orders for this decisive battle.

Buller’s objective for the battle was to break through Boer defenses entrenched north of the Tugela river, with a view to the relief of besieged Ladysmith. Although the orders were probably sound from a military/strategical perspective (the importance of conquering Hlanwane Hill, a Boer stronghold south of the river, seems to have been properly understood) the battle was lost partly because of monumental blunders in the execution of the battle plan by two commanders: Hart and Long. Other factors that contributed to the defeat were a combination of bad intel, sketchy maps and the use of outmoded battle tactics such as troop movement in close formation. In addition, there seems to have been a total misunderstanding on the British side of the military capabilities of their untrained opponents under acting-Commander-General Louis Botha. During the battle, the Boers applied innovative tactics that defied traditional military understanding (e.g they entrenched at the foot of the hill rather than on top). Other factors contributing to the British defeat were the weather and the Boers’ use of smokeless ammunition. Although Buller called off the attack early and well before the majority of his troops were committed, his losses were heavy with 143 troops killed (among which Lord Roberts’ only son Frederick), 756 wounded and 220 taken prisoner. The Boer losses were 8 killed and 30 wounded.

The defeat (on the back of equally devastating defeats at Stormberg on the 10th and Magersfontein on the 11th of December) eventually cost Buller his position as C in C and traumatized an entire Empire that had not long before enthusiastically sent its sons to South Africa thinking they were headed for a few months of “fun ‘n sports.”
More dramatic were the long-term consequences of this series of lost battles. In a single week an outnumbered, military untrained ragtag band of bible-bashing farmers proved to the world that the British Empire was anything but invincible. That realization gave the military powers that challenged Great Britain for world hegemony the confidence to gear up militarily and this, in turn, was a major reason why some political tensions could erupt into a full scale world war just fifteen years later.
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Major G.F.Ellison ephemera 8 months 4 weeks ago #91134

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Everhard,

These are truly extraordinary survivors, and of great historical importance. Thank you for sharing them with us.

Neville
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Major G.F.Ellison ephemera 8 months 4 weeks ago #91138

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Everhard,

A remarkable set of documents. Thank you very much for scanning, posting and sharing them with us all.

Going back many years, my brother and I used to own the KCB KCMG group to General Ellison. Your post brought back happy memories.

Best wishes
David
Dr David Biggins
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Major G.F.Ellison ephemera 8 months 4 weeks ago #91148

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Ellison ephemera part 4. Among the items pinned up in the box was a letter dated December 12, 1899 by Assistant General Louis Botha to Colonel Bruce Hamilton, Buller’s A.A.G.. Ellison wrote on the letter “This was received under flag of truce from General Botha on 12.12.99”
The Anglo Boer War is sometimes referred to as the last “Gentlemen’s War.” I have quite a few letters in the collection that were sent between commanders on opposing sides of the frontline and it is truly astonishing to see how courteous the opposing parties remained in their mutual correspondence throughout the bloody conflict. This letter, sent just three days before the slaughter at Colenso, bears evidence thereof.

Colenso 12 December 1899
Right Honorable Sir,
I have the honor to herewith confirm the reception of your missive of today concerning the fate of the two Bosman brothers. I would like to express herewith my sincerest gratitude for your benevolent efforts undertaken by you as well as for the information provided.
I have the honor
Your Obedient Servant (signed) Louis Botha, Assistent Generaal.
To the Right Honorable
B. Hamilton, A.A.G.
Z (?) Natal
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