A 42nd Battery, R.F.A. man at Elandslaagte and beyond - A. Turner 1 week 5 days ago #76766
Driver, 42nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery – Anglo Boer War
- Queens South Africa Medal with clasps Elandslaagte, Defence of Ladysmith and Belfast to 3235 DVR. A. TURNER, 42ND BATT. R.F.A. (with ghost dates)
Arthur Turner was born in Mildenhall West Row, Suffolk, England in about 1874, the son of Charles Turner, a Shepherd, and his wife, Sarah. At the time of the 1871 England census, 7 year old Arthur was at home in High Lodge Farm Cottages in the Parish of Eriswell along with his parents and siblings Eliza (16), Charles (14) and Laura (11).
Ten years later, at the time of the 1891 England census, the family was somewhat altered – Arthur was now a 17 year old Agricultural Labourer, as was his father; the family had moved to live in Church Street, Fordham in Cambridgeshire and, aside from his parents, only a late addition in the form of 7 year old Peter, were in residence.
Some three years later, on 20 March 1894, a 19 year and 9 month old Turner attested for service with the Royal Artillery at Ely. The Short Service attestation forms he completed told us a bit more about the man. He confirmed that he had been born in West Row, Mildenhall and that he was a Labourer by occupation. He was also a serving member of the 4th Suffolk Regiment, a Militia unit, and, when asked the question as to whether he had ever been rejected as unfit for service, answered, somewhat unusually, in the affirmative, stating that he had been suffering from Influenza at the time he had first applied.
Physically, at 5 feet 4 inches in height, he was a small man, although almost average for the times in which he lived. He weighed 134 pounds and had grey eyes, brown hair and a fresh complexion. A member of the Church of England, he had two birth marks on the back of his head and a mole on his throat by way of distinguishing marks about his person.
Having been found fit for the army, he was posted to the 2nd Division, 1st Battery, R.A.’s Depot at Woolwich with no. 3235 and the rank of Driver. On 1 April 1895 he was posted to the 87th Battery and then, after reorganization, on 13 October 1897 he was transferred to the 29th Battery, R.A. - it was with the 29th Battery that he left England for overseas service in India on the 13th October 1897, remaining there for 1 year and 339 days.
It was only with the imminent outbreak of the war in South Africa that he was transferred to the 42nd Battery on 11 September and, less than a week later, he sailed with his unit for South Africa. On arrival in Durban they were posted to Ladysmith and were there when war was declared on the 11th October 1899, under the command of General Sir George White. The war in Natal had commenced with a vengeance with the Boers pouring over the Transvaal border into Natal and engaging the garrison at Dundee in the battle of Talana Hill on the one hand; with the Free State Commandos traversing the Drakensberg Mountains to enter Natal from that direction.
White was afraid that the new threat from the Free State men would be enough to engulf the few resources he had at Ladysmith. He therefore ordered General Yule, who had taken command on the death of Penn-Symons at Dundee, to retreat with his 4000 men into Ladysmith. Whilst this was underway, the Boers had nor remained idle and had progressed to the Elandslaagte station and Colliery where they presented in force. According to Amery in his History of the War in South Africa, Sir George White “realised that the moment had come for striking a hard blow at the Boers, and decided at once to send out as large a force as could be conveniently spared.” He consequently despatched a strong force by road from Ladysmith which included the 42nd Battery. Royal Field Artillery. Along with it went Driver Turner.
At about 11 o’clock on the 21st October the reinforcements began to arrive from Ladysmith, the two batteries having galloped out with double teams with the infantry arriving by train. The artillery horses were put out to water and the cavalry and infantry began to extend in preparation for the forthcoming battle. A Boer Maxim Gun began to play, at short range on a squadron of the 5th Dragoon Guards. The direction of the fire was inaccurate, and the 42nd Battery coming into action, the Boers speedily withdrew into the hills eventually returning to the Boers main position where the battle was in full swing.
By 3 o’ clock that afternoon, all the reinforcements had arrived and been deployed and General French determined to attack the Boer positions above Elandslaagte. The men, both infantry and Cavalry, approached the first ridge where the Boers were entrenched. As they did so the Boer guns opened with common shell – the ranging was good but the fire ineffective. At 4 p.m. the 21st Battery galloped up on the left of the Manchesters, and came into action in the open, 4400 yards from the enemy artillery. For six minutes the enemy returned the fire with great accuracy, but as soon as the 42nd galloped up and unlimbered the enemy ceased firing.
But the position of the guns had been declared and revealed to the enemy, and the artillery preparation for the battle now begun. At first the batteries were annoyed by a long-range rifle fire from Pienaar’s men. The guns were turned on them and they quickly cleared off but not before several of the R.F.A. men were wounded. The scene during the short artillery preparation was a weird and fantastic prelude to the battle. A huge bank of thunder cloud formed a background to the Boer position. So dark was this background that every puff of bursting shrapnel showed distinctly to the naked eye. But the light was fading and the infantry were now called into action. The two batteries of artillery were in support of the advance, moving into closer ranges as the attack developed.
The battle ebbed and flowed under a terrific deluge of rain until, at last, the Boers, after an initial rally, took flight and were routed in their departure by the men of the 5th Lancers who had been held in reserve for such an eventuality. But what of the artillery whose shrapnel had kept the Boers so busy whilst the infantry advanced? The story is best told, by an officer of the 21st Battery who kept a diary detailing events as they transpired. They were, at all times, alongside the 42nd battery, mirroring almost their every movement which makes it worthwhile to relate his take on the action as it unfolded. Lt. Howard Gill wrote as follows:
Saturday, 21st October 1899 – about 9 a.m. Colonel Coxhead is sent out in command of a column moving along the Newcastle road in the direction of Elandslaagte. The Imperial Light Horse, Devons, Manchesters and the Natal Field Artillery had gone out early in the morning with General French. Colonel Coxhead’s column consists of 42nd Battery and two squadrons of 5th Lancers etc. at 11 a.m. he receives report of fighting at Elandslaagte. The enemy prove to be 1200 – 2000 strong and have 3 or 4 guns firing smokeless powder and having very long range. Guns are invisibly placed on the top of a long ridge. Reinforcements now sent for. 1 p.m. we are ordered out as quickly as we can. We move out in battery column, by the time we have gone 7 miles and by the time we draw up alongside the 42nd we have had to put in nearly every spare horse.
As we approach the 42nd (who are in line unlimbered) on the left of the railway, we are passed by 3 trains of infantry in open trucks who cheer wildly as they see us struggling over the heavy ground. We are brought into action first, on the right of the 42nd facing the Boer camp, but do not fire there. Our horses get 5 minutes rest while the 42nd fire half a dozen rounds at the Boer camp, scattering the few men that were in it. Both batteries are then ordered to cross the railway and advance over the ridge into action against the long low rocky hill held by the Boers.
We cross the railway and follow the 42nd in battery column the best way we can. It is a beautiful sunny day and we are now approaching the last long ascent of half a mile which will bring us to the crest line whence we can see the enemies position.
The long advance up this slope is an anxious time, as the drivers with their utmost endeavours, can only just get a crawl out of their poor beasts. There is now no attempt at dressing in the line, the guns struggle up as they can, while things are still worse in the wagons.
Having reached the crest-line we come into action about 300 yards beyond it, on the right of the 42nd who were in action but have not as yet apparently fired. I would here point out that we have been sent into action without any orders, without even been told where the enemy’s guns are, and apparently without an escort. We have never been warned to keep clear of a low ridge which is covered with Boers, and only 2000 yards distant. A state of confusion reigns for several minutes. We are totally unable to discover where the enemy’s guns are, until after 10 minutes someone sees a flash. We are being pounded with a very heavy and accurate, but luckily singularly ineffective, fire from the guns, and rifle bullets are whistling through the batteries we know not whence.
To add to the confusion, the limbers have gone to the rear before the wagons can get up over the heavy ground and for some time we are short of ammunition. Then the 42nd, not being able to see the target, are unable to give us the range. As our wagons come up, the Boer guns turn most of their attention to them and do considerable damage. Wagons are smashed up and horses are dropping like flies. The conduct of all of the men, gunners and drivers all this time is simply splendid. No confusion or hurry.
After the flash has been spotted we find our range (4400 yards), to our disgust it is beyond the reach of our time fuze. Being incapable of ranging the batteries properly, the Major now decides to advance the two batteries about 1000 yards. The 42nd advance first and take up a position, whilst we cover their advance by shelling the enemy’s guns with percussion shrapnel. Before we have fired our second pair of time fuzes, the enemy’s guns are completely silent, the gunners running from them. Meanwhile the rifle fire from the low kopje on our right becomes hot and the constant “ping” of the bullets past one’s head is decidedly unpleasant.
Both batteries advance again to a third position. Directly we limber up, the guns open fire on us again but on coming into action for the third time, we quickly silence them, and distribute our own fire over the ridge again (range 2400 yards) battery fire 5 seconds. Now on our right front we see a solid wall beginning to advance up the (our) right side of the enemy’s position. These we soon see are the Gordon’s. The ILH advanced from the other side of the same flank and they met and mingled at the crest line. The Major immediately orders us to cease fire and now the whole air is filled with a deafening rattle of musketry. When we cease fire the enemy’s guns open again for a few rounds which, however, fell over and under but do not get the range.
They then gave the advancing Gordons’ a round or two but the Dutch (or German) gunners rapidly desert their guns as the Devon’s are now making a frontal attack……. Darkness falls and the pitiable state of our horses prevents any pursuit and we are ordered to retire to near the railway station and bivouac there for the night. The march over uneven ground and amidst pelting rain and inky darkness seems unending. At last we reach the level crossing and find a train there, full of wounded but waiting for more before starting back to Ladysmith. We are all joined up together with the other battery (42nd), the ILH, the Natal Field Battery etc. in a fearful muddle. The men eat their bully beef and biscuits with relish, although tired out they can’t sleep for excitement. They are all full of talk and so pleased with themselves. The drivers try to water their horses but there are about 600 ahead of them.”
Having made it back into Ladysmith, the respite for the 42nd was of short duration; Yule and his ponderous column was making for Ladysmith and was far from safety with the imminent threat of a Boer attack ever-present. To assist, General White moved out on the morning of the 24th October with a force which included the battery. His intention was to demonstrate in force against the Free Staters who were known to be in possession of the heights above Rietfontein farm, some seven miles outside of Ladysmith. The advance proceeded unmolested, but as the head of the main column came opposite the lofty saddle-backed ridge of Tintwa Inyoni, there was a sudden flash and a shell pitched into the leading battery (42nd), killing a horse.
The enemy made good practice with his guns at 4500 yards but, using black powder, soon declared his position. General White determined to move his infantry and artillery onto a nearby ridge in order to shell the enemy out of the commanding heights above him. The two field batteries had already been replying to the Boer gun, and they now came into action on the summit of the table-land. The infantry then deployed under the cover of the guns and remained under long range rifle fire for about four hours until the artillery had practically reduced all opposition from the hill-tops. General White, feeling that he had obtained his objective, withdrew his infantry under cover of the guns.
On 30 October (Mournful Monday) General White decided on a full scale attack on the Boer forces, the initial target being Long Hill. Several Imperial Infantry battalions were selected for the task along with all three Batteries (42nd, 21st and 53rd) under Colonel Coxhead. Once this had been achieved the idea was to storm the Boer main position on Pepworth and capture the guns. Things went wrong from the start, despite the boldness of the plan the details were vague and the orders to carry it out even more so. Coxhead’s artillery which was in the middle of Grimwood's column, and which Grimwood understood was to accompany him to some position south of Long Hill, turned aside during the march in order to take up the position behind the kopje known afterwards as Flag Hill, east of Limit Hill, assigned to both brigade divisions by Colonel Downing, the officer commanding the whole artillery. Not only did the artillery leave the column in the darkness without Grimwood's knowledge, but it carried away with it the Liverpools, Dublin Fusiliers, and the mounted infantry companies of the 60th and Leicesters. The whole incident was a very bad piece of staff work on somebody's part, and gravely prejudiced the chances of the day.
At about six o'clock the whole of the batteries (excepting the 69th, subsequently sent round to Lombard's Nek) left their cover behind Flag Hill and extended in a fan-shaped line in front of the centre of the British position. The Boer gunners were not long in discovering them, and opened from Pepworth and from somewhere behind the north end of Long Hill. Their practice was excellent, but the fuzing of the shells indifferent, and most of the shrapnel burst in the ground. The British batteries unlimbered, the left hand batteries replying vigorously to the Boer guns, while those on the right for some time continued to pour their shrapnel over the empty emplacements on Long Hill, the 21st and 53rd being soon after sent on to silence the Boer guns which were playing on Grimwood. It was difficult at first to locate the Boer guns with any precision. But invisible as was the actual discharge of the smokeless powder it was not long before the concussion and recoil of the guns on the hot, dry ground raised a dust which gave the British gunners the target they desired. The Boer guns on the right were for the time being quickly silenced. But the battery on Pepworth at 4500 yards range was too far off to get the full effect of the shrapnel fire. The 42nd and 67th batteries (Goulburn and Manifold) were pushed forward into the open 1500 yards nearer to the position. This movement at once attracted a concentrated and accurate shrapnel fire from the gunners on Pepworth, and men and horses began to fall. As the first shell fell among the guns the Boers on the hill, as at Talana, leapt up waving their hats and cheering loudly. But the British plied their guns with such good effect that, in spite of scathing shrapnel, in another twenty minutes they were only answered by desultory shots. Trichardt's gunners stood up manfully to the superior weight of fire directed upon them, but it was too much for them, and they now took shelter behind the rocks waiting till the fire should slacken or the batteries turn their attention elsewhere. At the same time most of the Boer riflemen who had been cheering so enthusiastically made off down the reverse of the hill, while some of the bolder among them moved down the western slope and worked forward into the broken ground south-west of Pepworth, where they could hope to check an attack upon the hill without exposing themselves to concentrated artillery fire. But for the rest of the morning the actual summit of Pepworth was unoccupied save for the men of the " Staats Artillerie " and for a handful of burghers.
The morning wore on with the Imperial forces completely directionless - All six British batteries were now incessantly employed endeavouring to keep the Boer rifle and gun-fire under. Their formation was peculiar, extending over a complete semi-circle—from the 42nd and 67th, firing north-west at Pepworth from the position they had occupied nearly all the morning, to the 21st and 69th facing south-east from in front of Lombard's Kop and Lombard's Nek. But against the scattered line of riflemen shrapnel could do but little, while the Boer guns on the east, several of which considerably outranged the British, were no sooner silenced than they reopened fire from some new quarter. Both on Pepworth and along the Modder Spruit, the Transvaal artillery fully justified the expectations the Boers had formed of it, and reversed the contemptuous estimate in which the British authorities had hitherto held it. The 37-mm. Maxim-Vickers automatic guns or "pom-poms" proved especially disconcerting, and with the " Long Tom " on Pepworth and the intensity and omnipresence of the Boer rifle-fire combined to create the confused surprise with which the British began to realise that the Boers were a far more formidable adversary than they had expected.
Sir George White determined at about 11.30 to abandon the contest and withdraw his troops. During the retirement, the 42nd and 67th were severely engaged. While they were busy with the guns on Pepworth and to the north of Long Hill, which had reopened vigorously at the first signs of the retreat, one of the Boer guns, which had been opposing Grimwood, suddenly enfiladed them at 3000 yards range from Long Hill, and before the 67th could silence it the 42nd had lost an officer and several men killed and wounded. The covering of the retreat by the batteries was the one bright spot in one of the gloomiest days in the history of the British Army. Rarely have British batteries behaved better; they fell back generally at a walk, never more hastily than at a trot; yet the only support which they at first received was the little which they could afford each other while covering the withdrawal of the whole.
Two days later, on 1 November 1899, Ladysmith was besieged, surrounded on almost all sides by the Boers and their big guns astride the hills around the town. Turner and his artillery comrades were now at the mercy of Long Tom and his friends. The defence of the town was broken into sections, each with their own artillery – the 42nd Battery (Goulburn) was sent, as soon as a practicable road was made, to Caesar's Camp, and posted by sections in skilfully designed pits along the main plateau. The Boers, surprised that there had been no surrender by the town, decided on an assault on Platrand for the 9th November. This was never intended to be more than a demonstration but the Vryheid Burgers, acting on their own initiative, endeavoured to convert this into an actual attack, and securing a lodgement in the bush-grown under features of Caesar’s Camp, and in the valley between it and Wagon Hill, pushed forward with some vigour about 10 a.m., being supported by a hot fire from Mounted Infantry Hill and from other points in the valley of the Fourie's Spruit. But the Manchesters, who had been strengthened by the arrival of the 42nd Battery, and by some 130 of the Imperial Light Horse, who occupied Wagon Hill, replied strenuously, and the attack soon died away into an exchange of long distance rifle-fire.
With matters having reached a stalemate and the British showing no signs of surrender, the Boer High Command held a Krygsraad, determining to launch an attack on the town. Although no date was decided on, the attack took place on 6 January 1900 and was known as the battle of Wagon Hill. The garrison at Caesar’s Camp on the night of 5/6 January included the Manchester’s, the 42nd battery, R.F.A., and a detachment of Natal Naval Volunteers with a Hotchkiss gun. The battle ebbed and flowed and the 21st and 42nd Batteries, Royal Field Artillery, and the naval 12-pr. on Caesar's Camp, were in action against Mounted Infantry Hill and the scrub on either side of it, and were of great assistance in keeping down the violence of the enemy's fire, thereby playing a crucial role in the eventual repulse of the Boer attack.
With Ladysmith relieved on 1 March 1900, the 42nd Battery, continued on with Buller’s Field Force, expelling the Boers from Natal and pursuing them into the Eastern Transvaal where on 27 August 1900, the last pitched battle of the war was fought at Bergendal. Buller was opposed by General Louis Botha and a scattered number of men from various Commandos, not numbering more than 1000 in total. Buller had placed his artillery well, the Vogelstruispoort ridge projected itself north of the farm to within about a mile and a quarter from Bergendal. On this part of the ridge Buller placed two field batteries, the 21st on the northern edge nearest Bergendal, and the 42nd at the southern edge, and all his heavy guns in the intervening space. These guns commanded not only the farm, but also the Germiston position and the Long Toms to the east.
Shortly before 11 a.m. the bombardment began. The fire from Buller’s thirty-eight guns was directed chiefly on Bergendal Farm. The trees on the farm, which for some sentimental reason the commandant had refused to cut down, afforded an excellent ranging target, and after a few shots the gunners were placing their shells with unerring accuracy on the police entrenchments. The shelling continued for three hours without intermission, no such severe and concentrated fire having been witnessed during the war since the days of Vaal Krantz and Pieter's Hill. The top and all sides of the platform were swept by a hail of shrapnel, while the rocks themselves were torn and rent by the explosion of the lyddite shells. This barrage from the artillery prevented the Boers from bringing up much needed reinforcements and the day was carried with Buller triumphant.
The good work of the battery at Bergendal was acknowledged in General Buller’s despatch of 13th September, and in his final despatch 1 officer and 2 non-commissioned officers were mentioned.
As has been seen, the 42nd, with Driver Turner in the thick of it, had seen a wide range of action against the Boers. Turner soldiered on in South Africa until he was sent back to England on 12 October 1902 – having spent 3 years and 26 days in the country. Having arrived home, he served for a further 3 years and 158 days before being placed on the Reserve List. This brought his total service to 12 years and fulfilled his Short Service obligations to the Crown.
Nothing further is known of Arthur Turner.
Gill's hand-drawn map of the Elandslaagte battle detailing the position of the various RFA batteries
The following user(s) said Thank You: djb, QSAMIKE, BereniceUK, goose
A 42nd Battery, R.F.A. man at Elandslaagte and beyond - A. Turner 1 week 4 days ago #76767
A fantastic post, Rory. Many thanks.
Dr David Biggins
The following user(s) said Thank You: Rory
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