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A Leicester man at Talana - William E. Bonnett 5 years 10 months ago #41925

  • Rory
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William Ernest Bonnett

Private, 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment – Anglo Boer War

- Queens South Africa Medal with clasps Cape Colony, Talana, Defence of Ladysmith, Laing’s Nek and Belfast to 3278 Pte. W. Bonnett. 1: Leic. Regt.
- Kings South Africa Medal with clasps South Africa 1901 & 1902 to Pte. W. Bonnett, Leicester. Regt.


William Bonnett was born in June 1876 at Leicester in Leicestershire, England in June 1876 the son of William Frost Bonnett and his wife Mary Ann, born Richardson.

The first glimpse we have of a young William was in the 1881 England census at which time the family were living at 134 Brunswick Street, Middle St. Margaret’s, Leicester. William was 5 years old and, aside from his parents, was together with siblings Amy (9), Horace (2) and baby Beatrice (3 months) in the house. Mr Bonnett was a Shoe Finisher by trade and, as will be shown, William was to follow initially in his father’s footsteps.



Ten years later during the 1891 census the family had moved to 123 Charnwood Street in East St. Margaret’s, Leicester and William was now a lad of 15 and already hard at work as a Shoe Finisher like his father had been. This worthy had moved on and was now employed as a Sugar Boiler. The remaining members of the household were an exact replica to the previous census bar the addition of 7 year old Frank. Older sister Amy, now 19, was a Shoe Fitter by trade; both she and William were in the employ of Jennings of Church Gate, makers of shoes and boots.

Options for Victorian youth who were born on the wrong side of the street were limited and it was small wonder then that Bonnett availed himself of the opportunity of joining the local militia as a precursor to an army enlistment. On 23 August 1892 at the age of 17 years and 2 months he signed the Militia Attestation forms to join the 3rd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment at Leicester. Assigned no. 4536 he was physically, 5 feet 3 inches in height with a sallow complexion, dark brown hair and dark brown eyes. Having being enrolled he completed 49 days of drill before being posted to the Leicester Regiment proper on 12 July 1893, almost a year later.

Unsurprisingly the information he provided in the Short Service Attestation forms he completed differed little from the Militia ones save for the fact that he was a year older and an inch taller. Initially posted to the Depot, Bonnett moved to the 2nd Battalion with effect from 17 October 1893. From 2 January 1896 he was posted to the 1st Battalion and it was here that he was to remain for the remainder of his military career. On 2 January 1896 the 1st Leicester’s were deployed in South Africa and six months later, Bonnett blotted his copybook and was imprisoned by the O.C. of the Rest Camp in Pretoria for 14 days for an undisclosed offence being released to duty on 26 June 1896.

War clouds had been gathering over the south of Africa and they finally erupted into full scale conflict between the Orange Free State and Transvaal Boer Republics in October 1899. Britain had a presence on the ground in South Africa but this was limited and insufficient to combat the Boer forces. The Leicester’s were already on the spot so to speak and were part of Sir George White’s forces stationed around Ladysmith when the Boer invasion of Natal came early in October and were in Dundee when the first real battle of the war took place – that of Talana – named after the hill on Smith’s farm just outside Dundee and the present-day site of the museum there.

Early in the morning of the 12th October Boers began to cross the border into Natal. The 1st Leicestershire regiment had also moved forward and now formed part of the garrison at Dundee, a town sat in a circular valley entirely surrounded by high hills.

On the 18th October Commandant Erasmus and his men were only seven miles from Dundee. Sir George White, the British commander in Natal, felt anxious about the garrison forty miles away from Ladysmith at Dundee, and telegraphed General Symons to fall back at once. General Symons decided that he could remain there with 4,000 men while 14,000 Boers slowly closed in upon him.

On the 19th October all communication between Dundee and Ladysmith was cut and in the evening the Boers prepared to advance during the night to be in position to occupy the high hills east of Dundee. At 2.30 A.M. the Boers stumbled upon a picket which they drove in, and occupied Talana hill.

The morning of the 20th dawned dull and cloudy by all accounts. Men were seen on the skyline of Talana and very soon an artillery shell burst on the outskirts of Dundee, the first shot of the war in Natal. British artillery quickly replied and soon silenced the Boer artillery on the top of the hill. General Symons then prepared his men for an infantry attack to drive the Boers from Talana hill.

Bonnet’s 1st Leicestershire regiment together with the 67th field battery were ordered to protect the camp at Dundee and to prevent any incursion from the North. The remainder of the advancing infantry soon encountered heavy Boer rifle fire and consolidated. At 11.30 the artillery ceased firing to allow the infantry to storm the hill. As the infantry moved forward, the Boers retired over the crest of Talana and the action looked won. Just then British artillery opened up again and cleared the summit of both Boers and British. It was nearly 1.30 P.M. before the hill was finally reoccupied against light opposition.

General Symons had been mortally wounded during the attack and he was replaced by Brigadier General Yule. On the 21st General Yule moved his camp to a better position to avoid long range Boer Artillery fire, during which the 1st Leicestershire regiment had lost Lieutenant William Hannah killed and Lieutenant B. De. A. Weldon, together with one man, wounded.

On the 22nd General Yule resolved to retreat back to Ladysmith. It was estimated that the march would take three days. Thirty three wagons, escorted by two companies of the 1st Leicester's returned to the original camp and loaded up with as many stores as they could. As darkness fell, candles were lit in the tents to give the impression that the men were still present. At 9 P.M. the force marched out on the Helpmekaar road in silence. They had left behind them their wounded and a great mass of stores were abandoned to the enemy. The Boers did little to impede the retreat but occupied Dundee soon after the troops had left. Torrential rain did much to slow the General's retreat down but after seven hours, the column which was four miles long, had covered 14 miles.

The roads were knee deep in mud and many fast flowing streams had to be crossed. The troops became exhausted and rested on the afternoon of the 23rd October, having reached Van Tonders pass. The column set off again the following morning still without the Boers posing an active threat to them, although they could not have been far behind. Twelve more miles were covered and camp was ordered to be set up when General Yule received orders from Sir George White to press onto Ladysmith without any further delay. The men set off again in total darkness and pouring rain and it was not until dawn the next day that the men saw Ladysmith across a short expanse of plain. The shattered column of exhausted men finally staggered into Ladysmith on the morning of the 26th October.

The Boers were not far behind and were soon observed on the hills around Ladysmith, which was a most unsuitable town to defend. Supplies of water to the town were cut and Sir George White resolved to attack the encircling Boers before they could complete a complete siege. He proposed to send two infantry brigades to storm Pepworth hill, where it could be seen that the Boers were building a gun platform. One of these brigades, commanded by Colonel Grimwood, included the 1st Leicestershire regiment. Just after midnight on the 30th October, Grimwood's brigade consisting of six miles of men, guns and horses began to move off.

As dawn broke they were in position for their artillery to open fire but their flank had been turned. The Boer Artillery fired back and for four hours the troops were subjected to a heavy and sustained shelling and were soon in disarray. At midday the men were withdrawn before they suffered defeat. The men who had been on the retreat from Dundee seemed to suffer the most; the Leicester's were wandering back into town in groups and seeking water and sleep, having suffered 24 casualties. It was not surprising that the day became known as "Mournful Monday".

Two days later the Boers cut the telegraph line and the railway line to the South, and on the 3rd November they completed the siege of Ladysmith with its garrison of 13,500 troops.

Ladysmith was divided up into four sections. The Northern salient was section B and was commanded by Major-General F. Howard. It extended from Gordon Hill to Observation Hill and then continued to King's post, Ration Post and Rifleman's post. Within this area was the inner position of Leicester Post with its garrison of the 1st Leicester's.

During the night of the 7/8th December the Leicestershire regiment carried out a raid towards Hyde's farm but failed to discover any of the enemy and returned to Ladysmith without a shot being fired. The siege continued throughout December and into January, with food shortages and health issues increasingly becoming a problem. Dysentery and Typhoid broke out due to the dirty river water being used for drinking, although efforts were made to sterilise it. Towards the end, horses were being slaughtered to sustain the men.

The siege was finally lifted on the 28th February 1900 and the original garrison was given time to recover from their ordeal of disease, short rations and a constant artillery bombardment. They were first of all left by the banks of the Tugela River, where they were joined by reinforcements from England. On March 10th the 1st Leicester's were re-organised and placed in the 8th Brigade 4th Division of General Buller's army of Natal. The men were route marched in order to regain their fitness and many suffered from Jaundice due to over-eating after a long enforced abstinence. It was nearly two months before they were considered ready for active service again.

Between the 6th and the 12th June 1900 the Boer's position at Laing's Nek was simply outflanked by using a minor pass over the Drakensberg Mountains to the West. The miles of entrenchments, manned by at least 4,500 Boers fell without a shot being fired. By the 6th August the 4th Division was completed when the 7th Brigade marched into Meerzicht, where the 8th Brigade was encamped. On August 7th the assembled force moved north, the last set piece of the Boer War taking place at Belfast on 27th August. The position was dominated by a large hill near a farm called Bergendal. Four Battalions stormed forward while the 1st Leicester's were kept back in reserve. By attacking and capturing the strong point, the rest of the position caved in all along the front. The war seemed practically over now.

On the evening of the 5th September the Leicestershire regiment together with the 60th Rifles occupied a hill near Badfontein which was being shelled by the Boers. A battery of artillery was dragged up the steep slope and positioned to dominate the Boer guns, which then rapidly withdrew. On the 7th September the town of Lydenburg was occupied and the 1st Leicester's, together with the Rifle Brigade were left in the town, under General Howard, as a garrison. On the 20th September the 1st Leicester's moved up to Paardeplaats and then rejoined the Division on the 26th.

The regiment was involved in drives against the Boer Commandos during the first half of 1901 when the war devolved into a guerrilla campaign. They then began building a line of block-Houses between the towns of Ermelo and Standerton. The lines would prevent the Boers from crossing from one region to the next and give them no shelter.

Progress was rapid, with two pre-fabricated corrugated iron block-houses being built and one mile of barbed wire being laid each day by the men of the Leicester regiment. The Block-Houses on this line were exceptionally close together, being just 700 yards apart. Once built the 1st Battalion Leicestershire regiment provided the garrison for them. The Leicester's could justifiably claim that they were one of only a few regiments that had been present at the outbreak of the war and were still serving at the end. William Bonnett was among this number having been active from the very beginning. For his efforts he was awarded the Queens medal with clasps to all the major actions mentioned above. The Kings Medal also came his way by virtue of having served for longer than 18 months in the cause of the war.

After the peace agreement was signed in May 1902 the British regiments prepared to leave South Africa. The 1st Battalion Leicestershire regiment was due to be deployed to Madras, India but for Bonnett, who had attested for seven years with the colours and another five in reserve, his time was almost up and, as his overseas service time had expired, he was returned home to Leicestershire on 12 May 1902, three weeks before the war ended.
On 26 September 1902 he was transferred to the A Reserve and on 11 July 1905 he was discharged from the army on termination of his limited engagement.

The last time we encountered Bonnett was in the 1911 census where he was living at 2 Bell Entry, Castle Street in Hinckley, Leicestershire where he was employed as a Bottler in a local brewery. This was also the place where he married his wife Harriet Kent in January 1904. With the married couple in their house was their children Annie Beatrice (7), Ethel Grace (5), Will (1) and baby Edith (2 months). Sadly this was the last occasion that the family were destined to be together as a unit - shortly after this Harriet suffered an illness and was sent away .

William Ernest Bonnett died in the Hinckley Union Workhouse Infirmary in November 1916 the informant being the Matron.

















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A Leicester man at Talana - William E. Bonnett 5 years 10 months ago #41927

  • Frank Kelley
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Hello Rory,
Those are very nice indeed and certainly not getting any easier to find as time marches onward, they are rather more expensive to buy too these days, but, what super antiques they are.
He is a fairly typical man I suppose for that point in time, WO96 does tend to show how hard times were and the War Office were very keen to get young lads into the Militia despite their small size in the hope of getting them fit for future service in the Army, Bonnett was certainly no exception here and seems to have grown a little before being found suitable to enlist.
I wonder what his family were doing at the White Hart Hotel, perhaps, just boarding there for a short period if they had fallen on hard times.
I, myself, have never been able to get into Talana and have often wondered why the War Office even considered a clasp for it, notwithstanding the efforts of the brave infantry who took the summit of Talana Hill with the bayonet, it looked far more like a defeat to me, but, the deaths of people like Colonel Gunning certainly should have been a stark warning of what was to come as far as the enemy were concerned.
A very good pair, so do you tend to concentrate on Natal with your collecting these days, or is it the whole war?
Kind regards Frank

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A Leicester man at Talana - William E. Bonnett 5 years 10 months ago #41930

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Hi Frank - living in Pietermaritzburg which is on the door step to the Natal interior and a hop, skip and a jump away from where all the action took place has meant that I do tend towards the Natal conflicts, although not exclusively.

I am drawn to the Colenso and Ladysmith actions but also fancy the SAC and the Natal Police

Regards

Rory

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A Leicester man at Talana - William E. Bonnett 5 years 10 months ago #41939

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I was always drawn to Colenso, in particular, as a small boy, but, all those years on, even today, people blame Buller, quite rightly, but, it is perhaps ironic, that the first to think in that way, were actually your own fellow inhabitants of Pietermaritzburg, one hundred and fifteen years ago.
You had all this panic and bumptiousness on the streets there, the colonials had looked toward Buller and the British Army with a great confidence and the thought of a defeat would simply not have occurred to them.
So the result was that you had all the "street" and "bar room" generals out in town, I bet that West Street was a real hotbed of rumour and self opinion over that weekend of Saturday and Sunday, the 16th and 17th of December and of course as soon as the Army arrived back in camp at Chieveley and the word reached town that they had also withdrawn their frontline about a mile and a half, the blame game must have started.
But, again you only have to go back a few weeks to Dundee and all those brave infantry, Gunning, Hambro and all their brave young lads and you could have seen the writing was on the wall, it was merely a matter of time for the enemy.

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A Leicester man at Talana - William E. Bonnett 5 years 8 months ago #42855

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Good Day Rory,

What a wonderful surprise to find an account of my Grandfathers military service in South Africa. My father was Will (William) Bonnett, his youngest son. Although I have copies of William Ernest's militia and service records I was unaware of all the clasps with his QSA medal. I had often wondered what happened to his medals and am glad to see they are obviously so well looked after and regarded.
During the First War the family lost William Ernest's two brothers, Frank and Horace, his step son Stewart Hammil and his wife Harriet's brother Samuel Kent. The first three are commemorated on Hinkley War Memorial.
I have Stewart Hammils medals hanging in my study as I write this. He was also of the Lestershire Regiment and served in France from 1915 until Aug 1918 when he was killed, aged just 20.
Once again many thanks for the wonderful account.

Regards, John Bonnett
North Wales
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A Leicester man at Talana - William E. Bonnett 5 years 8 months ago #42860

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John, What a coincidence!
Dr David Biggins

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