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Sgt. Russell in the Siege of Pretoria 6 years 5 months ago #55560

  • Rory
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I didn't quite know in which section to post Russell's story - he was in at the Battle of Ulundi, saw action against the Sekukuni and was in the Siege of Pretoria thereby ticking quite a number of boxes.

George Russell

Sergeant, 2 Battalion, 21st Regiment of Foot (The Royal Scots Fusiliers)

- South African General Service Medal with clasp 1879 to 720 Sergt. G. Russell, 2 – 21st Foot

The George Russell in our narrative and the George Russell who was the recipient of the above medal was most likely George Henry Russell born on the Isle of Wight on 1 December 1857 to William and Mary Ann Russell of St. Lawrence. He was christened on 6 June 1858 at Chale in Hampshire.

Nothing is known of his early life but, suffice it to say, he answered the call to join the Colours at Portsmouth in March 1877 when 19 years and 3 months old. The battalion fell under the 61st Brigade at this point and Russell was enlisted by Lieutenant and Adjutant Springer at the Depot whilst they were stationed in Clarence Barracks, Portsmouth where they had been since July 1876

In November 1877 the battalion returned to Scotland and was stationed at Fort George, detaching two companies to Dundee. Russell was promoted to the rank of Corporal with effect from 4 December 1877. The following year the 2nd battalion was removed to Ireland where the headquarters were stationed in Richmond barracks. Russell took the opportunity to go on furlough from 1 January until 30 January – The 28th September 1878 saw a move from Dublin to the Curragh Camp and shortly afterwards they received orders to hold themselves ready for embarkation.

On 20 February 1879 the 2nd battalion left the Curragh for Cork and embarked at Queenstown aboard the “City of Paris” for South Africa with a newly promoted to Sergeant Russell (with effect from 28 February 1879) on board. But what could these men expect to find on arrival? First and foremost their departure came at a time in the Anglo-Zulu conflict where Britain had just been given a very bloody nose. The memory of the disaster at Isandlwana on 21 January was fresh on everyone’s’ minds and word would have reached the rank and file of the virtual annihilation of so many of their comrades in the 24th Regiment of Foot and others who had perished on the side of that infamous mountain.

The heroic stand at Rorkes Drift a day or two later would have done little to assuage the angst mingled with excitement that these men destined for the war zone would be feeling. Who were these raw savages that had wrought so much death and destruction on trained men of the Empire? Were they going to be on the receiving end next?

Their introduction to South African shores was not an auspicious one – as the ship steamed into Table Bay, Cape Town, she struck upon the Roman Rocks causing confusion and alarm on board. The good discipline of the men was shown by the steadiness and ready obedience to orders that followed. Having been transferred to H.M.S. “Tamar” the battalion proceeded to Durban disembarking on 31 March 1879. On 3 April the Fusiliers left for “up country” arriving at Pietermaritzburg on 5 April and resuming their march (no motorised transport available in those days) arriving in Dundee on 23 April.

On 2 May they left Dundee joining the division under the command of General Newdigate on the 30th and on 1 June they crossed the Blood River into the theatre of war – Zululand. It wasn’t long before they felt the presence of the Zulus – having constructed “Fort Newdigate” on the 4th they were surprised that very night by a party of Zulus who, having been fired on, disappeared into the night.

On 7 June the 1st Brigade, comprised of the 2nd Battalion, 21st Foot, the 58th Regiment and some cavalry and artillery went out and cleared the bush, destroying the native kraals and carrying off a large quantity of mealies. Here they remained until the 16th awaiting the arrival of General Evelyn Wood’s column with stores.

Battle of Ulundi

On the 18th June the battalion resumed its march on Ulundi arriving there on the 30th and crossing the Umfolosi River early on the 4th July. At this point the enemy were not visible until the scouts spotted them swarming upon the hills all around. The division advanced in a square formation with the enemy descending from the hills and surrounding the square – the battle of Ulundi had begun – The Zulus made their fiercest attack upon the rear face of the square where the Fusiliers were posted with the evident intention of getting between the troops and their camp thereby cutting off any potential retreat. Ultimately repulsed the number of their dead found lying in front of the position held by the Fusiliers bore testimony to the coolness and accuracy of aim of the men.

In another account of the battle it was mentioned that the regiment formed a portion of the right of the hollow square and, “with the 58th bore the brunt of the first desperate onslaught of the enemy, large numbers of whom got to within thirty yards of the line before the galling and destructive fire which was poured into them could stay their advance.”

The battle of Ulundi and the burning of the Royal Kraal thereafter signified that the Zulus had finally been vanquished and were finished as an effective fighting force. On 26 August the battalion, their job done for now, marched for Pretoria halting at Wakkerstroom until the 15th of September to allow the baggage to catch up. On 25 September, whilst at Standerton, orders were received for the formation of a body of mounted infantry. These men did excellent work but it is not known whether or not Russell was one of the two Sergeants amongst them.

Sekukuni’s Kraal

On October 15th, having arrived at Heidelberg the battalion received orders to proceed to Middleburg. Having arrived there on the 19th they were joined by the 94th Regiment both marching on Fort Webber and arriving there on 20 November. This is where the “Transvaal Field Force” was formed. On 26 November the column marched on Fort Albert Edward under very distressing conditions – the roads, little more than tracks, had been made impassable by heavy rains and great delays were caused by the waggons sticking fast in the mud. That night the troops were soaked through by a tremendous thunderstorm and torrents of drenching rain.

The next day they marched the whole day camping on the banks of a river about two miles opposite from Sekukuni Town. Tents were struck at 2 a.m. the next day and the whole column advanced across the river to attack. In the storming, capture and destruction of Sekukuni’s stronghold the Fusiliers played a prominent part incurring casualties with 3 men killed and 16 men wounded.

Siege of Pretoria

On 4 December 1879 the Fusiliers received orders to proceed to Pretoria arriving there on the 22nd. It must be noted here that the regiment had just been involved in two arduous campaigns and had marched over a thousand miles with the effect that their clothes had been reduced to rags. Men were doing the best they could using material obtained from tents, biscuit bags and whatever else was to hand to try and make their clothing and uniform more presentable. But the effects of what they had undergone began to take its toll with as many as 127 men being hospitalised with enteric fever. Russell meanwhile, had reverted to the rank of Private (no reasons supplied)

Officers and NCO's of the 2/21st in Pretoria during the Siege. Russell, a Sergeant could be among this group

On 3 February 1880, whilst in camp in Pretoria, a tremendous hurricane and hailstorm occurred, tents and huts were blown down and the men were fully exposed to the inclemency of the weather which injured some of them.

At this stage the 2nd battalion was broken up into three parts – the first was a Company of men that was sent to Potchefstroom to help build and man a fort there – they were later augmented by “D” Company. The second was when “E” Company was sent to garrison Rustenberg with the remainder of the battalion, Russell included, staying in Pretoria.

The Boers meanwhile saw an opportunity amidst all the mayhem to further their own ambitions for independence and came out in revolt in December 1880. This found, as has been alluded to, the 2nd battalion including Headquarters with A,B,F, and H Companies and a half-troop of mounted infantry in Pretoria and C and D Companies at Potchefstroom with E Company at Rustenberg. Two fresh drafts of men were detailed from joining the regiment instead being ordered to occupy Pietermaritzburg.

News of the fate of the 94th Regiment at Bronkhorstspruit had come as a great shock to the British in Pretoria. The news of the Bronkhorstspruit disaster so shattered Colonel W. Bellairs, commanding British troops in the Transvaal, that he dropped all plans he had made earlier, on receipt of the news that the Boers had reinstated the Transvaal Republic, for sending out two small field columns against the Boer host and even his plan for defending Pretoria itself.

Under the authority of martial law he bustled the entire civilian population out of their homes and into the military camp half a mile south west of the town and another separate defended enclosure nearby, between the Loreto Convent and the gaol, known as the Convent Redoubt. All edibles were commandeered and stored within the lines while the five thousand souls bunkered down to await relief from Natal.

For defence Bellairs had five companies of infantry (four from the 2/21st Royal Scots Fusiliers and one from the 94th), a troop of Mounted Infantry, sixty Royal Artillerymen with two nine pounders and an assortment of other guns from the Colonial stores, plus units from the Commissariat and Medical Corps, all told about 700 regular troops. Of Volunteer forces there were 433 Pretoria Rifles and two mounted corps - the Pretoria Carbineers and Nourse's Horse, altogether 640, making a total, with the regular troops, of 1 340 combatants.

Two forts were built on the range of hills south of the town. The military camp itself was a barely defensible conglomeration of huts and buildings and Bellairs relied heavily on the forts, the mounted men, and the artillery, to keep the enemy at bay, but the onslaught by six thousand bloodthirsty Boers, so dreaded after Bronkhorstspruit, did not materialize. After a few days British patrols ventured forth cautiously and found they could roam for miles around the town unopposed.

In the Boer capital of Heidelberg Piet Joubert embarked on full hostilities after hearing of the clash with the 94th at Bronkhorstspruit and sent men to besiege all the Transvaal outposts, but unlike the smaller garrisons at Rustenburg, Potchefstroom, and elsewhere, no concerted attack was launched against Pretoria - he was content merely to blockade the large number of troops there and prevent them interfering with his strategy in other sectors.

The first encounter occurred on the 28th of December when a large mounted patrol from the camp flushed out a number of Boers from the 'Red House' laager ten miles to the south. Shots were fired, two volunteers were wounded, and one Boer was killed, before the patrol drew off. Bellairs gathered a large force for a full attack on the same position the next day placing Colonel Gildea of the Fusiliers in command.

Before dawn on 29 December a force of infantry, mounted men, and artillery, totalling four hundred, moved towards the 'Red House' laager. Gildea however was so anxious to post men along his line of retreat, undoubtedly with the recent disaster to the 94th fresh in mind, that his striking force was sadly depleted by the time he approached the laager, but the mounted volunteers were still with him and eager for action. Seeing Boers retreating they galloped forward to take their cattle and rode straight into a trap; other Boers had stayed behind under cover and received them with a volley, checking the advance and wounding four. The volunteers extricated themselves with difficulty and Gildea brought his force back to camp, explaining lamely that his purpose had been reconnaissance, not assault. In later actions he proved far more confident and aggressive.

A week later, on 5 January 1881, a foraging party to a farm nine miles east of the town spotted another Boer laager three miles further off among the Zwartkoppies in a bend of the Pienaars River. Bellairs again decided to attack and the following morning 462 men set off under cover of darkness. Gildea pushed ahead hurriedly with the main attack but the forty Boer defenders under Veldcornet Hans Botha held their ground tenaciously until overwhelmed.

Two Boers were killed, three wounded, and fifteen taken prisoner; the rest had ridden away while a flag of truce was flying. Gildea wasted no time in withdrawing to camp as more Boers were riding in from other laagers to investigate.

This was the only time during the siege that an attack was pushed to a successful conclusion but the cost to the garrison had been high - six men dead, twelve wounded - and the Boers had inflicted more than three times their own losses on the attackers, a grim warning for the future.

Ten days after the Zwartkoppies action, Gildea attacked yet another Boer laager - on the Daspoortrand at Elandsfontein nine miles west of the town. Nourse's Horse made fine progress driving in the Boer left flank and Gildea was preparing a final assault when Schoeman arrived with a hundred men just in time to prevent another defeat. Gildea broke off the attack and returned to his base, chased all the way by the Boers. Two men had been killed, eight wounded, and seventeen horses disabled, while the Boers had six men lightly wounded.

After this Bellairs saw no point in further costly attacks and remained inactive for a month, allowing nothing more than minor skirmishes. With broken hilly ground north and south of the town, the Boers extended over great distances and numbering less than half the garrison the situation was ideal for a quick strike at one point and an ambush of the reinforcements who were bound to ride in from other laagers. The garrison's artillery gave them a tremendous advantage but Bellairs was content to keep the peace. The wisdom of this policy was confirmed to his own satisfaction on the 7th of February when the Boers passed in news of Colley's defeat at Laingsnek in Natal; any relief column must now be greatly delayed and Bellairs considered it more important to husband resources than to harass the Boers.

Colonel Sir Owen Lanyon took a completely opposite view and itched to be at the Boers, especially as Colley had sent in a message in January requesting the garrison to distract their attention away from his own force. Although the Laingsnek defeat had altered the picture Lanyon managed to persuade Bellairs to launch one more attack on a Boer position. Before dawn on the 12th of February a force of 614 infantry, mounted men, and artillery, - nearly half the garrison's fighting strength, moved out for a second strike at the 'Red House' laager. The result was a humiliating fiasco. The mounted volunteers failed to storm their objective, a cattle kraal near the laager, and before they could be supported the Boers launched a counter attack on the left flank which demoralized the whole force and wounded Gildea who thereupon ordered an immediate retirement. The Pretoria Carbineers were left to cover the retreat while the regular infantry fell back without having fired a single shot. Fortunately for them the Boers did not press the pursuit closely and the force regrouped at the Six-mile spruit and moved back to camp. One man had been killed and seventeen wounded of whom no less than seven subsequently died. Not one Boer had been hit. Bellairs never crossed swords with them again.

The siege dragged on with the garrison unaware of the dramatic developments on the Natal border. The stock of food lasted well, and only in mid-March when rumours began circulating of another Colley defeat did Bellairs halve the normal ration scale. On the 28th of that month three British officers rode in with despatches about the peace terms concluded in O'Neill's cottage. The civilians were aghast that the Transvaal was to revert to Boer rule, the Volunteers roasted an effigy of Gladstone in frustration, and many families resolved to quit the land.

On the 8th of August 1881 the Boer government formally took office but the last British soldier marched out of the Transvaal only after a newly elected Volksraad had ratified the peace terms in October. This freed up the regiment to leave Pretoria – they marched for Durban arriving there on 3 January 1882 embarking the same day or the East Indies.

But Russell wasn’t among their number – he had liked what he saw in South Africa and took his discharge by purchase, after four years and 281 days service, from the regiment on 17 December 1881. His days in uniform were over. For the part he played in both the Zulu War and the attack on Sekukuni he was awarded the South African General Service medal with 1879 clasp. No medal or clasp was awarded for the Transvaal War (otherwise known as the 1st Anglo-Boer War)

Russell took up the occupation of Hotel Keeper in the New Guelderland, Lower Tugela division of Natal. He married and had one child, a daughter Mary, before passing away in June 1893 at the age of 36.

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Sgt. Russell in the Siege of Pretoria 6 years 5 months ago #55564

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Thanks for this article Rory-I am always interested in reading more about this campaign as I own two Zulu war medals to soldiers who took part in this campaign including a Laing's Nek casualty-see my recent post on Cpl Stephens 1st Dragoon Guards.
I read any post you put up as I am fascinated by the level of research and detail you seem able to supply.
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Sgt. Russell in the Siege of Pretoria 6 years 5 months ago #55567

  • Rory
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Yes indeed thank you George - I had noticed your post on Stephens - a very nice medal it has to be said.

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