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Gunner Ernest Jones of N/5 - a Zulu War and 1st Boer War veteran 2 years 1 month ago #72183

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Ernest George Jones

Gunner, N Battery, 5th Brigade – Zulu War and 1st Anglo Boer War

- South African General Service Medal with 1879 clasp to 4709 GUNR. E. JONES, 5TH BDE. R.A.

Ernest George Jones or Ernest as he seems to have been universally known, would have considered himself a lucky man, had he have had the benefit of hindsight. How so one may ask? The answer lies in the number of fatalities his Battery incurred at the infamous battle of Isandlwana – they were many and he might well have been among the 61 slain were he to have been of the first contingent sent out. As it so happened he was sent later, after the epic battle, as part of the reinforcements and was to be in on the actions at Ulundi and the subsequent war with the Boers, being one of those involved at Laings Nek, Ingogo and Schuinshoogte.

Ernest Jones was born in Hackney, London in January 1861, the son of George Valentine Jones, a Compositor by trade and his wife Mary Ann, born Taylor. He was baptised in the church of St. Mary the Less in Lambeth, Surrey on 3 March 1861. One of the first glimpses we have of him comes courtesy of the 1861 England census where we find the family ensconced at 6 Kennington Oval in Lambeth. The family was a developing one, not uncommon for the period, and comprised a 4 month old Ernest along with siblings Harry (5), Anny (4) and Clara (2). Mr. Jones, at 44, was a good 14 years older than his wife.

Ten years later, at the time of the 1871 England census, the family had grown incrementally and was now living at 18 Brierly Street in Hackney. Harry, Ann, Clara and a 10 year old Ernest had been joined by Albert (7), Herbert (4) and Willie (2). A hitherto unencountered older daughter, Elizabeth (20), a Machinist by trade, had also joined the family.

After what one can assume was a very rudimentary education, Jones spent his later teenage years as a Labourer. Job prospects for the young working class boys of London were bleak in Victorian times and many chose to “take the King’s shilling” or join the army as it were, in order to provide a future for themselves. This was to be the route Jones took.

Initially unable to sign his name, “X” marked the spot, when he completed the attestation forms for service with the Royal Artillery at Woolwich at 3 o’ clock in the afternoon of 17 September 1877. Claiming to be 19 years old (he was only 16) at the time he enlisted for “no bounty” and a “free kit”. Physically he was 5 feet 7 inches in height with a fair complexion, grey eyes and light brown hair. Assigned no. 6318 he was mustered as a Gunner with the Royal Artillery. Providing his father, George of 33 Fellor Street, Weymouth Terrace, Hackney as his next of kin he commenced his military career.

After 163 days service he was transferred to the 4th Brigade on 1 March 1878 and then to the 5th Brigade on 1 March 1879, by which time the Zulu War was in full swing and the massacre of Isandlwana a thing of the past although still top of mind for a hurting British public. The news having reached the ears of the High Command in London, urgent steps were taken to send reinforcements to Natal to bolster the war effort and replace some of the number of men lost in action. Jones was to be one of those selected for this task – he embarked for South Africa on 21 February 1879 and set sail.

Guns played an important part in the Zulu War, but, as in many colonial wars, their use was one-sided. The Zulus had no artillery, and they made no use of the two guns they had captured at Isandlwana. In 1879, the Royal Artillery was divided into horse, field and garrison batteries. Batteries were organised in brigades, and it was possible to identify the type of battery by its letter or number designation, or both.
For example, horse artillery had lettered batteries and brigades. Field artillery batteries were lettered whereas their brigades were numbered. Garrison batteries and brigades were both numbered. N/5 Battery (or N Battery 5th Brigade) – Jones’ outfit - was therefore a field battery.

Having taken to the field on arrival, the N/5 Battery comprised six 7 pr and two rocket troughs - the rocket troughs accompanied N/5 during the campaign, but they were seldom mentioned in contemporary accounts. N/5 Battery received a reinforcement of two guns under Capt Vibart in May 1879, to replace the two lost at Isandlwana.

With the Zulus now on the run, N/5 next saw action, with its new staff complement, at the battle of Ulundi on 4 July 1879 where it came into operation with two Two 7 prs. This was the artillery of the 2nd Division and the Flying Column, less four guns of N/5 Battery, and two of the Gatlings. One section of two 7 prs was at Fort Marshall, and the other section was at Fort Evelyn. There is every indication that Jones was in on the action.

For the battle, the guns were placed on all sides of the British square, in order to meet the Zulu attack, from whatever direction it might come. They were in action just outside the infantry line, or in gaps left for them. When the Zulus attacked, the cavalry moved clear, and fire was opened at a range of over 2000m. Although the action was short, and ammunition expenditure was low, some guns used all their case and had to fall back on reversed shrapnel, which had a similar effect. Later, Zulu dead were counted in groups at less than 30m from N/6 Battery's guns.

The artillery was deployed as required with the various columns in the different skirmishes and engagements which followed until the end of the war. With the end of hostilities, a period of non-activity ensued which didn’t suit the temperament of a man like Jones who, consequently, got into a spot of bother on two occasions – the first on 26 July 1880 when he spent 36 days in a military gaol having been tried and convicted on an unknown charge, and on 6 November 1880 where he spent time in gaol until being released on 8 January 1881.

His release had as much to do with his sentence running down as it did with the army’s need for him to participate in the next phase of the Artillery battle in South Africa – the first Anglo Boer War. Most of the batteries sent to South Africa had by now returned to England or gone elsewhere, leaving N Battery, 5th Brigade as the only one available for use against the Boers.

The First Anglo Boer War was fought from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881 between the United Kingdom and Boers of the Transvaal. This was the culmination of three-and-a-half years of fruitless negotiations on the part of the Boers to have the Transvaal Republic re-instated.

At the start of the war N/5 (less one section of 2 guns) was in Pretoria, the detached section, to which Jones belonged, was in Natal where it was to form part of the Natal Field Force of 1400 men. N/5 was the main artillery unit attached to General Colley’s Natal Field Force (4 Officers and 75 men). Captain Greer, the senior artillery officer in Natal, then drew two more 9 prs from stores. Horses were bought locally, and NCOs and men from 10/7 Battery were sent up from Cape Town to man the guns. A wagon team was transferred to the new section from N/5, with its men, so that they could train the garrison gunners.

In spite of this unusual mixture of guns and gunners, Major General Sir George Colley, commanding in Natal, was reasonably satisfied with his artillery force. He believed that it would strike fear into the hearts of the enemy. ‘Artillery have a great moral effect on the Dutch’, he said. The Boers themselves were apprehensive.

The first action in which Jones took part was the battle of Laings Nek on 28 January 1881 - the two 9 prs of N/5 Battery opened proceedings half an hour before the infantry attack, by firing on the Boer positions on the Nek. Using the Watkin rangefinder, the range was calculated at 2 350 yds, and fire was opened at this range. This rangefinder had only just come into service, and the men were not expert in its use. The range was incorrect, and all the shells disappeared over the ridge. Range had to be reduced to 1 900 yds (1 754 m) before rounds landed on the Boer position.

The rocket tubes of the Naval Brigade then moved forward to 1 200 yds with a company of the 60th Rifles. They engaged the enemy, and the Boer reserves and horses behind the main position.

The attack of the 58th Regiment was supported by the four 9 prs of the N/ 5 and 10/7 detachments, and the 7 prs of the 60th. Their fire compelled the Boers to withdraw to the rear edge of the plateau. There they were secure from the shrapnel, even though their field of fire was limited. In addition, the Boers had constructed defensive works, and in these they were relatively safe from the British artillery fire. The result was that when the attack of the 58th came, the Boer riflemen were well able to deal with it. During this action, the rockets covered the left flank of the force. The artillery covered the withdrawal, firing at ranges from 1 200 yds to 2 200 yds.

In his despatch, Gen Colley wrote: ‘The artillery was well served, though from the nature of the ground, and the cover it afforded the Boers, the fire was not very effective. Much credit is due to Captain Greer and Lieutenant Parsons for the efficiency of my artillery forces, seeing that there were originally only two guns properly manned and equipped in this country, the other four having been equipped and horsed locally, and manned partly from a garrison brigade, and partly by volunteers from the 60th Rifles.

N/5 at the time of the 1st ABW

Schuinshoogte followed next on 8 February 1881 - The 7 pr section of the 60th, and the 9-pr section of N/5, accompanied the force, which, under General Colley, marched off to Newcastle. At the Ingogo River, the 7 prs were left on the Mount Prospect side, in action on high ground overlooking the river.

When the main force came under fire, the two 9 prs were galloped into action, and opened fire with shrapnel at 1 200 yds. Capt Greer, commanding the artillery in Natal, was killed as he supervised the boring of fuzes at the trail of one of the guns. As the Boers came closer, the guns fired case shot, and when that was exhausted, reversed shrapnel, which had very nearly the same effect. By this time, most of the gunners had been hit, but the Boers were unable to rush the guns, thanks to the assistance of the infantry. From their position across the river, the 7 prs engaged the enemy in support of the main force that was now in some difficulty.

When orders were given for the withdrawal of the 9 prs, there were insufficient men to limber up. Gunners and infantrymen manned the wheels, and the guns were moved back to a position from which they could engage the Boers approaching from the Laingsnek direction. The section commander, Lt C.S.B. Parsons, was then hit, and Sergeant-Major Toole took command. Using riding horses to make up the gun teams, the guns were then brought out of action, although wagons and ammunition had to be left behind. The ammunition was rendered useless by burning the cartridges and burying the fuzes.

Casualties were 16 out of 27 men, and 14 horses. In his despatch, Gen Colley said: ‘The conduct of the men of the Royal Artillery well sustained the reputation of that corps.’

There was no artillery participation in the battle of Majuba on 27 February 1881 - the most decisive battle of the war. In the event, the guns of N/5 accompanied the force to the foot of the hill. When it was seen that it was quite impossible to get them to the top, they were sent back to camp. On the morning of the 27th, they checked Boer attempts to cut off the retreat of the companies left on Inkwelo and the lower slopes of Majuba, and the survivors of the battle itself.

The British were routed, Colley was dead and the Transvaal achieved its aim of semi-independence from Britain.

For Jones, his sojourn in South Africa was almost at an end – on 1 July 1881 N/5 had become the 4th Brigade with Jones continuing to serve, this time without incident, until being repatriated to England on 31 January 1882 – after 2 years and 345 days in South Africa. On 21 October 1884 he extended his service to 12 years with the Colours and was eventually discharged on 18 September 1898 after completing a total of 21 years. His intended address at the time was 3 Walpole Place, Woolwich and his Character on Discharge was rated as Very Good.

Earlier, back on home soil, he had wed Mary Ann Davis at St. Peter’s in Colchester, Essex on 25 November 1884 at which time he was a Depot man with the 2nd Brigade at Woolwich. Interestingly, his attendance at school (an attempt to further his education) had ben dispensed with on 16 December 1882.

The 1891 England census revealed that a 29 year old Jones was living at the Grand Depot Barracks and Cambridge Cottages, Woolwich Arsenal, together with his wife.

One could be forgiven for thinking that that was the last we were to see of Jones, militarily, but then one would be mistaken! Having taken his discharge, time served, just over a year before the commencement of the Second Anglo Boer War, Jones was ready to come forward once more.

On 19 April 1900, at Woolwich, he attested for One Year with the Colours. Now aged 41 years and 5 months (he was still lying about his age), he confirmed his prior service with the Royal Artillery and that he had now found work as a Labourer since his discharge. 5 feet 7 inches in height, he weighed 129 pounds and still had a fresh complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. He was passed as Fit by the Army Doctor. His next of kin was wife, Mary Ann, of 8 East Street, Plumstead.

Destined to never depart from England’s shores, he was assigned no. 9330 with the Royal Horse Artillery and discharged with a reference of Very Good, on 18 April 1901 – on completion of his year’s service. The 1901 England census has him, along with his wife, resident at the Royal Artillery Barracks.

Ernest Jones had donned a uniform for the last time – his end was to be a sad one – the Lunacy Asylum at Bexley’s register revealed that he was admitted to their care on 26 May 1904 never to leave again. He passed away on 11 April 1905 at the age of 44 survived by his wife – there had been no children of the marriage.

Jones had done his bit, his reward being his pension and the 1879 clasp Zulu War medal he had cherished.

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Gunner Ernest Jones of N/5 - a Zulu War and 1st Boer War veteran 2 years 1 month ago #72214

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A very interesting account, supported by excellent photographs too.

Many thanks
Dr David Biggins
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