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Thomas Astbury of the South Staffords - WIA at General's Nek 1 week 5 days ago #83856

  • Rory
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Thomas Astbury

Severely Wounded in Action – General’s Nek – 18 February 1901

Private, 1st Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment – Anglo Boer War

- Queens South Africa Medal with clasps Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal to 4988 PTE. T. ASTBURY, S. STAFFORD REGT.

Tom Astbury was born in the Parish of St. Matthews in Walsall, Staffordshire in about 1880, the son of John Astbury, an Iron Moulder by trade, and his Scottish wife, Margaret, born Quay. There is no sign of him in the 1881 England census which tends to indicate that he was, in fact, born in 1881, after the enumerator called round.

He does make an appearance in the 1891 England census where, as a young boy of 10, he resided with his family in 114 Green Lane, The Burchills, Walsall. The family was, as was to be expected in late Victorian England, rather a large one. Aside from his parents were siblings Margaret Ellen Elizabeth, 19 and a Bridle Stitcher by trade, Ellen a 17 year old Buckle Coverer, 15 year old John James, an Iron Caster like his father – followed by Betsy Jane (7) and Mary (6). Thomas’ grandparents were also in residence – 70 year old Gate Keeper John Astbury and his wife Ellen.

Having worked as a Carter and seen service with the 4th Battalion (Militia), an 18 year old Tom, enlisted for service with the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment at Wednesbury on 18 February 1897. Little knowing that on that exact date, four years later, he would be lying wounded in a land far away from his kith and kin.

Physically a diminutive 5 feet 4 inches in height; he weighed a slender 117 lbs and had a fresh complexion, grey eyes, and light brown hair. Having been found Fit for the army at Lichfield on 20 February 1897, he was assigned no. 4988 and the rank of Private.

Posted from the Depot at Lichfield to the 1st Battalion on 22 May 1897, he was posted to Gibraltar from 13 November 1899 – just over a month since hostilities between Great Britain and the two Boer Republics in South Africa – the Transvaal and the Orange Free State – had commenced.

Whilst at Gibraltar, orders were received for the regiment to return to England and mobilise for active service in South Africa.
They landed at Southampton on February 9th and proceeded to Aldershot. Here they were posted to Brigadier General Boyes, 17th Brigade of the 8th Division, commanded by Lt. General Sir Leslie Rundle, and sailed for South Africa on March 17th. The 1st Battalion had a strength of 25 officers and 1049 men under the command of Lt. Col. H.C. Savage.

The S.S. “Aurania” reached St. Vincent, Cape Verde Islands, on March 28th, but owing to a case of measles on board was placed in quarantine. Thus, the regular coolies were not allowed on board to coal the ship, so the N.C.O.’s and men of the 1st Battalion set to work and coaled the ship, enabling it to get away in two days instead of having to wait three weeks. They arrived at Cape Town on April 8th, leaving for Port Elizabeth next day, where they disembarked and went into camp.

On April 15th, 1900, the 1st South Staffords entrained for the front and moved to Edenburg in the Orange Free State. The men travelled most of the way in open trucks and owing to the heavy rain they suffered great discomfort.

Next day owing to lack of transport they had to leave all tents and extra blankets etc. behind; they marched first to Reddersburg, thence to Rosendal, and on April 19th the 1st Battalion acted as escort to a convoy of supplies to Oorlogs Post, where it joined the 8th Division.

Next day, April 20th, after a march of 25 miles, the 1st Battalion took part in its first action in the war at Wakkerstroom. The 8th Division was engaged here for three days. On April 24th the 8th Division made a wide turning movement to Dewetsdorp and were placed on half rations. On the Boers retiring from Dewetsdorp the 8th Division advanced to Thaba Nchu in the eastern Free State, close to the Basutoland border.

The following is an extract from divisional orders by Lt. Gen. Sir Leslie Rundle, dated Thaba Nchu, 26th April 1900:-

“The Lt. General commanding the Division wishes the troops under his command to know that he fully appreciates the efforts made by them in spite of being placed on short rations, and should the necessity arise he confidently expects that they will respond in the same manner as they did today.”

This was only a foretaste of what this Division had to undergo in the way of short rations, for it became known as “The Starving Eighth” long before the war was finished.

It was the task of the 8th Division to prevent the Boer Commandos operating in the district under De Wet, Prinsloo and Olivier, from breaking into the southern part of the Colony, and how the South Staffordshires and their comrades of the 8th Division performed their task is well told in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:- “Every attempt of the enemy, and there were many, ended in failure. Badly supplied with food Rundle and his half-starved host held bravely to their task; and no soldiers in all that great host deserve better of their country.”

The 1st Battalion remained at Thaba Nchu until May 7th, being frequently engaged with the enemy, and on that day they moved as advanced guard of the 17th Brigade to Abraham’s Kraal and were engaged in that neighbourhood in conjunction with General Brabant’s Division until 24th May, on which date the 1st Battalion was at Avondale.

On this day, the 17th Brigade received orders to seize Senekal. It marched immediately with the 1st South Staffords as rear-guard and occupied the town on 26th May. The Battalion formed the garrison of Senekal until May 31st, on which date the 8th Division marched for Ficksburg.

The Division reached Hammonia on 2nd June, where the 1st South Staffords remained, but on 14th June they were sent to Ficksburg to reinforce the 2nd Manchester Regiment and proceeded to place the town in a state of defence. During the time they were at Ficksburg the town was continually attacked, and during a reconnaissance in force from Willow Grange Farm Captain Grogan and 2nd Lieutenant Brancker were killed.

On July 23rd, a general attack was made from Ficksburg in conjunction with the remaining troops of the 8th Division. This engagement was maintained until 26th July, with slight loss, and the same day the Boers evacuated Commando Nek, and the battalion marched through it and joined the 8th Division, leaving two companies at Ficksburg, and two others to garrison various other posts.

Meanwhile the 8th Division had reached Fouriesburg where General Prinsloo, with some 4500 Boers was located.

Plans had been maturing to “spread the net” around this Boer army, and on July 22nd three Companies of the 1st South Staffords were taken from the Willow Grange garrison and pushed forward to the edge of the Willow Plateau, towards July’s Kraal. Every pass and strategic position was closely watched, and the cordon of British troops was drawn tighter. The attack on the Boer position began on July 23rd, and before noon on Sunday, July 29th, General Prinsloo and his 4500 Burgers had surrendered unconditionally. A huge blow to the continued aspirations of the Boer cause. After this surrender, the battalion with the 8th Division, left the Brandwater Basin and marched to Harrismith, where the South Staffords bivouacked about 3 miles outside the town.

On August 9th, the battalion (with 17th Brigade) proceeded on trek again, moving in the direction of Simpson’s Store, Molin River. By this time, the boots and clothing of the Regiment were in a terrible condition, many of the men being forced to make kilts out of their blankets and wrap putties around their feet. They were frequently on short rations, the ration issue consisted of 1 lb uncooked flour and 1 ½ lb of meat, but as there was no opportunity or material of cooking the flour, it was invariably wasted.

Dusty, dirty, ragged, and hunger-stricken, the men were a striking spectacle to the inhabitants of the district they traversed. They arrived at Reitz on August 14th, remaining there until the 20th, when they moved out and occupied Vrede on August 27th. While here, on September 3rd, new clothing and boots arrived for the Regiment, and the men were refitted. They were on trek again next day, and with the 17th Brigade occupied Bethlehem on September 11th, the 1st South Staffords being engaged with the Boers at Brockhurstfontein and Doomberg on September 17th with slight loss, and on 22nd September General Rundle ordered the Battalion to escort a convoy of prisoners and loot, which had been captured at Doomberg, to Harrismith, and the 1st Battalion was given a rest there after its five months hard work. They took their convoy safely to Harrismith, although they had occasional brushes with various parties of Boers on the march.

They remained at Harrismith until October 10th when they marched out as escort to a convoy to Reitz, reaching that place on the 14th. Here they remained as garrison of the town until December, having frequent skirmishes with the enemy, and making raids on farms in the vicinity which were known to be occupied by many of the enemy.

On December 8th the 17th Brigade (including the 1st South Staffords) marched out of Reitz, with orders to clear the country of all stock, horses, provisions etc. This force reached Senekal without opposition on December 14th. It then continued its march, on trek, reaching Winburg on December 22nd, and Stitzkop on Christmas Day. Here fresh supplies of clothing was sent for from Bloemfontein, as the men’s clothing was in a terrible state, it had not been renewed since the Battalion was at Vrede.

On the 10th January 1901 after continuous marching, the 1st South Staffords entered Senekal for the sixth time. After a brief rest they were employed in driving a party of Boers from a strong position near the Zand River on January 13th, when they had three men wounded.
From this date there was severe marching and frequent small skirmishes with the enemy until the Battalion returned to Ficksburg on February 4th.

The Boer forces were now largely broken up and with the capture of the Orange Free State, and the occupation of Pretoria, Field Marshall Lord Roberts gave up command of the forces in South Africa to Lord Kitchener in January 1901. Until the 6th May the 1st South Staffords garrisoned Ficksburg, placing it and the surrounding hills in a state of defence.



Generaalsnek

On February 17th three Companies of the Battalion, under Captain Cuppage, were sent into the Brandwater Basin to destroy enemy supplies. They were attached to Colonel Firman’s Column, and were very successful although they met with considerable opposition, and had eight men wounded. It was in this operation, on 18 February at a place called General’s Nek, that Astbury was Severely Wounded in Action. Generaalsnek (as it is also known) is a very minor pass located on the road between Fouriesburg and Ficksburg in the Eastern Free State highlands, close to the border with Basutoland. There is nothing to distinguish this little rise of just 49 metres with any of the other rises and falls along this road, except that it has been officially marked on the maps. It is suspected that the pass was named after that wily old fox very active in this region, General Christiaan De Wet.


Map denoting General's Nek

How long Astbury’s actions took him out of a combat role is unknown but the work of the Battalion continued, with him re-joining at some point.

In another raid, near Ficksburg, on April 24th, Captain A.T. Blackwood and three men were wounded, and two other ranks killed. On May 6th they moved into the Brandwater Basin, and on May 16th were severely engaged neat Thorne Mill, near Fouriesburg., losing four men wounded.

While in this district the Battalion was continually on the move, and constantly engaged with small parties of Boers roving the country, and they had a few casualties. Finally, the Column reached Harrismith on June 9th and refitted. Sir Leslie Rundle received a message from Lord Kitchener, congratulating him and the troops under his command, on their successful raids in the Brandwater Basin.

From Harrismith the Battalion were engaged in raids around Tweefontein and Langberg. On the 16th July, the 1st South Staffords, after continuous trekking, crossed the Transvaal border, reaching Standerton, on the Vaal River, next day. From this date until September 1st the Battalion was continually trekking in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem and Elands River, when it returned to Harrismith and took over the defences of the town. They remained at Harrismith until December 18th, when Battalion headquarters moved to Elands River Bridge, about halfway between Harrismith and Tweefontein, where the Battalion occupied blockhouses on the line Elands River Bridge.

Many of the men were soon to be involved in one of the most talked-about skirmishes of the war - on Christmas Day, 1901, at 2 a.m., General De Wet with a large force of Boers, made a determined attack on Colonel Firman’s Yeomanry Column which was encamped at Tweefontein. The Camp was completely surprised and, after a hot fight was captured. Colonel Firman being on short leave the Column was under the temporary command of Major Williams, 1st South Staffords, who was killed during the fight.



Newspaper report confirming WIA

On General Sir Leslie Rundle hearing the firing at Firman’s Camp he sent Colonel Tudwell with H Company (Mounted), 1st South Staffords, to try and help the Yeomanry, but it was too late, for on arrival it was found that the Boers were in possession of the Camp and firing on a number of resisting Yeomen. This Company was not strong enough to save the Campa and had seven casualties.

Reinforcements were quickly sent up from Elands River, but by this time the Boers were trekking off with their waggons to the fastnesses of Langberg, and pursuit had to be abandoned.

From reports of the survivors, it appeared that the Boers had crept up in stockinged feet and thrown themselves in overwhelming numbers on the pickets at the edge of the Camp, and before the Camp could be rallied the Boers were swarming through it, shooting down men as they rushed out, and the officers were shot down while gallantly trying to stem the tide. Major G.A. Williams was killed whilst heading a gallant attempt to charge the enemy. This little British force, numbering less than 400 men, was overwhelmed by a Boer force of nearly 1500.

The 1st South Staffords, Astbury included, remained at Harrismith in the same blockhouse line until peace was declared. The war over the many Regiments sent out were preparing to return home. Not so the South Staffords, they were required to remain in the country, on garrison and peace-keeping duty. Astbury was promoted to Lance Corporal on 27 September 1902 and to Corporal on 23 July 1903. His stint in South Africa came to an end on 4 June 1904 when he sailed for England. He was posted to the Army Reserve on 17 February 1905 and discharged from any further military obligation, on completion of 12 years service, on 17 February 1909.

What happened to Astbury post-war is a matter for conjecture.


References:

- History of the South Staffordshire Regiment (1705 – 1923) by James P. Jones - Boer War – pages 85 – 92
- Ancestry census data
- Google maps







The following user(s) said Thank You: RobCT, goose, gavmedals, Moranthorse1, Smethwick

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Thomas Astbury of the South Staffords - WIA at General's Nek 1 week 10 hours ago #83938

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Rory – many thanks for pointing me towards the “The History of the South Staffordshire Regiment (1705-1923)” by James P Jones (JPJ), allowing me to understand better the involvement in the Boer War of the 47 South Staffers in my Smethwickian database. The bonus was finding it was viewable on-line.

There are some shortcomings.

JPJ does not mention that the 3rd & 4th Battalion of the South Staffs were also involved in the Boer War, albeit to a lesser extent than the 1st – according to Wikipedia the 3rd from June 1900 to July 1901 & the 4th from March 1900 to August 1901 (these dates are compatible with service records for the 7 Smethwickians who served in these two battalions).

He also does not mention that the 1st were a Volunteer Battalion – newspapers of the day often referred to them in this way. This meant that one of the battalion companies was completely made up of volunteers who had only signed up for a year of active service – they went out in 3 waves with the last wave arriving only weeks before the war ended. The last wave were all awarded a single clasp to their QSAM – South Africa 1902, so I presume they never caught up with the line battalion.

JPJ mentions three members of the battalion were wounded on 13th January 1900 – actually there were four as shown by this extract from the Army & Navy Gazette of 19th January 1900:



All four also appear in the SAFF Casualty Lists as “slightly wounded” on the same date and same location – I presume Bultfontein is somewhere near the Zand (Sand) River. Interestingly JPJ puts the 1st at Senekal three days earlier – my AA route planner tells me Bulfontein to Senekal is 103 miles by a more or less straight road – some march! - or did JPJ forget to mention they went by train. (The A&N Gazette also made an error - for "1507 Eglefield" read "1517 Eaglefield")

Private 2776 Thomas Pugh was a Smethwickian, actually born in Wednesbury but lived and worked in Smethwick when he was discharged to the Army Reserve in 1898. When he returned from SA he again lived and worked in Smethwick and can be found on the 1911 Census & 1939 Register living, very appropriately, at 65 Kimberley Road in Smethwick. He was awarded the QSAM but not the KSAM as he returned to Blighty a couple of months after he was wounded but it was another year before he was fully discharged. His QSAM had three clasps – Cape Colony, Wittebergen & South Africa 1901 showing he was a member of the 3 companies involved in the July 1900 actions that culminated in General Prinsloo surrendering his command of over 4,000 Boers. The first wave of volunteers also all received the Wittebergen clasp.
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Thomas Astbury of the South Staffords - WIA at General's Nek 6 days 22 hours ago #83946

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Hi David

Yes indeed - Jones provides rather a potted history of the ABW in his book - a total of 8 pages are devoted to the conflict, indicative, perhaps, of the feeling that the South Staffs weren't one of the most "involved" regiments in the Boer War.

This link takes you to another of my South Staffs men - this time with the Wittebergen clasp which was awarded for activity in and around the Brandwater Basin during July 1900 when Prinsloo went "into the bag". www.angloboerwar.com/forum/5-medals-and-...arkable-career#82270

Regards

Rory

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Thomas Astbury of the South Staffords - WIA at General's Nek 6 days 20 hours ago #83950

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Rory - I remember reading at the time about the larger than life Bigwood who lost a clasp from his medal but miraculously/illicitly gained a few others and was an early starter in the patrimonial stakes.

I have been examining the medals and clasps awarded to my 40 Smethwickian 1st South Staffers and, subject to a final check, there appear to be14 different combinations.

By the way your Thomas Astbury also received the KSAM with both clasps. FMyP also shows that the death of a 30 year old Tom Astbury was registered in Walsall in Q3 1910 - sounds a bit like your man.

Regards, David.

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Thomas Astbury of the South Staffords - WIA at General's Nek 6 days 15 hours ago #83959

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On the subject of literary works giving details of the involvement of the South Staffs in the Boer war, I wondered if you had come across the publications in the following images?









I have found both tomes a very useful reference, particularly in researching Stourbridge men. I am sure that Smethwick would find this reference of interest.

Both regimental biographies were published in 2011 by Jeffrey Elson with all proceeds going to the Regimental Museum.

There was a limited print run of 100 for each book. I purchased mine over twelve months ago. At that time Jeffrey still had a few copies left for sale
If you were interested in trying to see if you could buy a copy from Jeffrey, please PM me for his email contact details.
Cheers Steve
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Thomas Astbury of the South Staffords - WIA at General's Nek 6 days 13 hours ago #83964

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Thanks Steve - would be interested in both although the North Staffs Regiment does not seem to have been popular with the men of Smethwick - only 6 on my books. PM on its way. David.

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