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The Toll of the Grim Reaper 6 months 3 weeks ago #83053

  • Smethwick
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Of “my” 207 Smethwickians who served in the Boer War 1899-1902, 11 died, 4 were killed in action and 7 died of disease.

When I cast my eyes west to the Boer War Memorial in the neighbouring Borough of Dudley I find 56 names. At the time of the Boer War Dudley was about 10% smaller than Smethwick in population terms.

When I cast my eyes south-east to the Birmingham Boer War Memorial in Cannon Hill Park I find 513 names. At the time of the Boer War the population of Birmingham was almost exactly 10 times that of Smethwick.

So Birmingham and Dudley are telling me my discovered death toll in Smethwick is ridiculously low.

However, looking at things another way 11 out of 207 = 5.3% and Wikipedia tells me out of 500,000 British and Colonial Troops 22,092 died which equals a death rate of 4.4%. So now the Dudley and Birmingham death tolls are looking ridiculously high.

Coming at it a third way the GB & Ireland population at the time of the Boer War was 41.6 million and the population of Smethwick was 54.5 thousand - doing a pro rata calculation means 455 Smethwickians served in the Boer War. So, if I had managed to discover all serving Smethwickians my death toll would be about 24.

Now the claims of the Dudley & Birmingham Memorial do not look ridiculously high but rather extremely high and over double what might be expected.

Is my logic flawed?

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The Toll of the Grim Reaper 6 months 3 weeks ago #83059

  • Rob D
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Very interesting topic!
From your number, the 95% confidence intervals of the proportion who died from Smethwick do not overlap with those from Birmingham or Dudley, so the proportion who died in Smethwick is genuinely lower.
From what I know, I would suggest that mortality in the South African War was not evenly distributed. The risk was not the same for all units; and in any unit, of course officers fared worse than other ranks (they had a habit of standing up). Do you know the regiments the men of Smethwick joined? Then one can follow the course of these units, and compare to units from Dudley and Birmingham, bearing in mind that often men did not sign up for their local unit.
The two main questions I'd ask would be
(a) did the unit get caught up in the typhoid (enteric fever) epidemic - mainly in Bloemfontein, but also in other towns like Ladysmith? During the siege of Ladysmith, 5% died of typhoid. Of 556,653 men who served the Queen, 7,582 fell in battle, over 74,000 were treated for typhoid and 8,225 died of typhoid.
And as a sub-set of question (a), was the medical officer in charge of the troop ship to SA an enthusiastic typhoid vaccinator or a vaccine sceptic? The vaccine reduced typhoid mortality by about 50%, but was only offered to those on board, not forced on the soldiers. The typhoid dead included Prince Christian Victor, the Queen’s grandson, who had not been immunised, which is ironic because Prince Albert also died of typhoid in 1861 before the vaccine was invented by Almoth Wright.
(b) did the unit get caught up in a slaughter, like Spioenkop, Colenso, Magersfontein?

I look forward to see how other forummers approach your fascinating observation.
Rob
The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.
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The Toll of the Grim Reaper 6 months 3 weeks ago #83065

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Rob - they served in 48 different regiments as listed below with the number in each regiment given:-

South Staffordshire Regiment 47
Worcestershire Regiment 26
King's Royal Rifle Corps 18
Imperial Yeomanry 17
Coldstream Guards 10
Royal Warwickshire Regiment 9
Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry 6
North Staffordshire Regiment 6
14th Hussars 4
Durham Light Infantry 4
Royal Field Artillery 4
Royal Welsh Fusiliers 4
Manchester Regiment 3
Northamptonshire Regiment 3
6th Dragoons 2
Army Ordnance Corps 2
East Yorkshire Regiment 2
Gloucestershire Regiment 2
Grenadier Guards 2
Oxfordshire Light infantry 2
Royal Army Medical Corps 2
Royal Engineers 2
Royal Horse Artillery 2
Royal Lancashire Regiment 2
Shropshire Light Infantry 2
South Lancashire Regiment 2
16th Lancers 1
17th Lancers 1
19th Hussars 1
3rd Lancers 1
5th Lancers 1
6th Dragoon Guards 1
8th Hussars 1
Border Regiment 1
Cameron Highlanders 1
Cheshire Regiment 1
Connaught Rangers 1
Damant's Horse 1
Gordon Highlanders 1
Kings Own Scottish Borderers 1
Lancashire Fusiliers 1
Leicestershire Regiment 1
Scots Guards 1
Scottish Rifles 1
Sherwood Foresters 1
South African Light Horse 1
South Wales Borderers 1
Welsh Regiment 1

I could add a 49th: Private 3866 John Howell enlisted in the South Staffs after the war started and was assigned to the 3rd Battalion. On the voyage to S Africa he was seconded to the 1st Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. On the day he set foot back in England he reverted to his original regiment.

The South Staffs had a relatively easy time of it and I think only two were killed in battle but that did not protect them from disease (see below).

Two of the four who kia were in the 2nd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment and died in the same engagement at Worcester Hill. The third, Hugh Stanley Thomson Reid was the son of a newspaper magnate who for a time was an MP in Birmingham and the family lived on the edge of Smethwick in a grand house, when the war started he was in SA working for the Natal times and joined the SALH, he was kia at Watervaal. The fourth served in the South Lancashire Regiment and was kia at Fort Prospect.

The 7 who died of disease were as follows: both the ones who served in the RAMC - one died of typhoid at Kimberley (he was not among the besieged) and the other of pneumonia at Elandsfontein; 2nd Scots Guards died of typhoid at Harrismith; 2nd Royal Warwicks died of typhoid at De Aar; two who served with 1st South Staffs - both of typhoid - one at Standerton & the other at De Aar; Lothian & Berwick Imperial Yeomanry died of dysentery at Johannesburg.

David.
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The Toll of the Grim Reaper 6 months 3 weeks ago #83074

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That is interesting.
More proof that the victor of the War was the little microbe, Salmonella typhi.
Do you know whether many of your Smethwick soldiers were officers? If it was a modest/poor town, perhaps less officers, and thus less killed?
The ratio of killed to wounded was almost the same for officer casualties versus other ranks, but the risk of being a casualty was significantly higher among officers.
The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.

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The Toll of the Grim Reaper 6 months 3 weeks ago #83076

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Rob - A definite lack of officers in my 207 with exactly 1 (one)!

Smethwick was (and still is) squashed between Birmingham and the Black Country. At the time of the Boer War it was expanding rapidly (1891 pop = 36,170; 1901 pop = 54,539) and glowing with civic pride. In 1899 it was granted Borough status which allowed it to elect a Mayor and have an official seal (as in used for sealing documents). Seven years later it went the next step and became a County Borough and gained a Coat of Arms. The expanding population was down to the arrival of a lot of new industry taking advantage of vacant land. As a result it ended up the most densely populated Borough in the land outside London with the least open space. It did manage to correct this to some extent in the late 1920's by grabbing the part of Oldbury that contained Warley Woods where the author and his mates spent a lot of their formative years tobogganing, watching the grey squirrels etc etc. Today along with Oldbury, West Bromwich (of football fame) and other nearby former County Boroughs it is part of the Sandwell Metropolitan Borough, home to nearly a third of a million people. However, Smethwick has just about retained its identity helped by the Smethwick Heritage Trust and ex residents like myself of whom a suspiciously high proportion now live far away. I digress but at the time of the Boer War it was very much working class (and still is).

The one officer I have identified is Godfrey Nettlefold. He was not born in Smethwick and never lived there but most definitely worked there helping to run the family firm of Nettlefolds, screw makers to the world. He volunteered for the 16th (Worcestershire) Company IY. He set sail for SA during January 1900, contracted typhoid there and was invalided home, arriving back in England in July 1901. He received a rousing welcome when he stepped off the train at New Street Station in Birmingham. The next year he had to deal with the amalgamation of Nettlefolds with another Smethwick firm who made nuts and bolts. They were called Guest Keen and the new super firm became Guest Keen & Nettlefolds or GKN for short. Godfrey had to retire early owing to health problems and died in 1918 in Arundel, Sussex aged only 43. He left a widow and a young family. I suspect the malign effects of Salmonella typhi caught up with him once again.

The one I don't understand is Arthur Mitchell of the brewing family who gave their name to Mitchells & Butlers - if the wind was blowing from the east the young author would go to sleep accompanied by the smell of hops, if was blowing from the west the hops would be replaced by sounds from the Rolfe Street shunting yards. Arthur was educated at Oundle & Christ Church, Oxford where he rowed for his college but also gained an MA. He was 26 and a junior director of the family firm when he volunteered for the 5th (Warwickshire) Company IY. He spent a year and 84 days in SA (including travel time) and was still a Private when he was discharged shortly after his return. He also served in WW1 when he rose to the rank of Captain.
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