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TOPIC: An Armoured Train Driver in the Siege of Ladysmith

An Armoured Train Driver in the Siege of Ladysmith 7 months 1 week ago #60805

  • Rory
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John Onley Fletcher

Driver, Natal Government Railways – Anglo Boer War
Private, 11th Infantry (Rand Light Infantry)
Head Conductor, South African Service Corps – WWI

- Queens South Africa Medal to Mr. J.O. Fletcher, Natal Govt. Rlys.
- 1914/15 Star to Pte. J.O. Fletcher, 11th Infantry

John Fletcher was born in Botha’s Hill on the outskirts of Durban and halfway to Pietermaritzburg in about 1879, the son of Joseph Fletcher and his wife Amy Jessie Marion Fletcher. His parents, originally from Gloucestershire in England where his father had been a Wine Merchant, had emigrated to South Africa at some point after 1871 and prior to his birth.

Botha’s Hill, or whatever it was called in the 1870’s, would have been a desolate spot with very little by way of a European population and a far-cry from what it is today. The Fletcher’s determined that a move to Charlestown on the Natal border with the Transvaal was in order and it is here that we encounter John in his working environment. Charlestown was a bustling little place sandwiched between Laing’s Nek and Volksrust and the location of a large railway hub staffed by employees of the Natal Government Railways. The Fletcher family lived in Connor Street.

For many young men in late Victorian times the railways, being one of the largest employers, was a place to which they gravitated. The colonies were no different and the N.G.R. was one of the highest paid jobs available at the time. Fletcher decided that his future lay with them and he was soon on the payroll in his home-town of Charlestown where he was employed as a Fireman and later, as a Driver.

The late 1890’s had seen the railway line develop all the way from Durban to the City of Gold, Johannesburg and the Volksrust/Charlestown junction was one of the most important. All was going well until that fateful day in October 1899 when long simmering tensions between the two Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State exploded into open conflict – now, suddenly, the railways assumed a greater importance as a means to convey not just passengers but troops and supplies to various battlefronts.

The Boer Commandos streamed south from the Transvaal and east from the Orange Free State into Natal where, late in October, the battles of Talana outside Dundee and Elandslaagte, took place. General Yule brought his forces into Ladysmith fighting a rear-guard action and, by the beginning of November, Ladysmith had been invested with the Boers surrounding the town. Peter Littlejohn, the N.G.R. District Manager based in Newcastle encouraged those employees in the district under his control to move to Ladysmith to continue serving or risk capture and becoming a prisoner-of-war.

Many responded and made their way into Ladysmith before the town was cut off from the world – others took the decision to “leave for down country” i.e. Pietermaritzburg or Durban where there was less likelihood of coming into contact with the Boers. Fletcher’s name appears among a list of those who decided to stay on in Ladysmith – he appears on the list as “J.C. Fletcher, Fireman, Charlestown”.

Employed as a Driver in the Locomotive Department, Fletcher played a crucial role in the siege and was awarded the Queens Medal for, as the annotation on the medal roll put it, “Driving Armoured Trains in the Siege” – quite what armoured trains there were is not known but it is known that two of the N.G.R. trains which had been “armoured” were shut up in Ladysmith during the siege. Typically an armoured train would drive out of Ladysmith for a short distance (bearing in mind that the place was surrounded) with a section of troops under the command of an officer with the objective of conducting reconnaissance work. In most instances the small party would be fired on with the train scurrying back behind its own lines. Fletcher would have driven one of these.

Perhaps unfairly, given that it was acknowledged that he played a part in the siege, Fletcher wasn’t awarded the Defence of Ladysmith clasp to his medal.

The war over on 31 May 1902 Fletcher turned his attentions to matters of romance and, at Holy Trinity Church in Newcastle on 7 October 1902, he wed Mary Hester Pawson (born Graham). His address was given as Charlestown whilst that of his wife was Laing’s Nek (she was a widow)

Fletcher continued in the service of the Railways even after Union in 1910 when it became the South African Railways and Harbours. The Great War broke out in August 1914 and, at the age of 35, he lost no time in enlisting with the Rand Light Infantry (11th Infantry) on 25 August with No. 242 and the rank of Private.

He embarked for Luderitzbucht on 19 October 1914 aboard the “City of Athens” bound for German South West Africa. For the first while the R.L.I. and others marked time whilst the rebellion played itself out in South Africa. There were only minor actions as the South African troops pushed the Germans out of Kolmanskuppe and further back along the railway. Fletcher and his regiment were involved in this skirmish when they, along with the Imperial Light Horse, tried to intercept the German retreat.

At Tschaukaib on 29 November 1914 the men got their first exposure to aerial warfare. A German plane flown by “Fritz” approached the camp where the R.L.I. were stationed. The men reputedly lay on their backs and let fly with every rifle they had. The plane circled the camp and dropped a bomb made by using an artillery shell tied to long streamer of cloth. “It went off with a real bang” but no-one was hurt. Another bomb dropped wounding two men with a third failing to explode.

After Windhoek had fallen the majority of South African troops were sent home but not the Rand Light Infantry who were sent north to reinforce General Botha’s force. Fletcher, however, was transferred from Maitland to the Central Force on 4 April 1915, first as a Conductor with the South African Services Corps (Transport Section), No. 1273, and then on promotion as a Head Conductor with effect from 19 September 1915 – after the war in that theatre was over.

Although he qualified for the award of the 1914/15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal he only claimed the Star which was sent to him in 1920. After the war was over Fletcher seems to have moved up to Kilindini in British East Africa which was the address provided for him when he died on 8 December 1925 at the age of 46 years 11 months. Interestingly his place of death was 8 Back Barrack Street, Leeds, Yorkshire – the home of his wife’s family (Graham). It is surmised that he was visiting them at the time of his death.

Fletcher was survived by his four-year old son John Graham Fletcher and his wife who, in turn passed away in Umgeni Road, Durban in 1940.

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