Medals to the Commissariat and Transport Staff 9 months 2 weeks ago #81689
Picture courtesy of DNW
SAGS 1 clasp 1879 (Condr. W. Parsons. Commissariat.);
Egypt and Sudan 1882-89, dated reverse, (0) (Qr. Mr. W. Parsons C. & T.S.);
Khedive’s Star, dated 1882, unnamed as issued
William Parsons was one of the three senior ranks besieged at Lydenburg in 1881 during the First Boer War. He was commissioned for his gallantry during the siege, newspapers of the time, with justification, calling him ‘the Real Hero’ of the defence.
The Defence of Lydenburg
Lydenburg is a small town named after Leyden in Holland, 180 miles north east of Pretoria. Besieged at Lydenburg were 54 non-commissioned officers and men of the 94th Foot; a Sergeant and 7 Sappers of the Royal Engineers; and 8 NCOs and men of the Commissariat and Hospital Corps, with Surgeon Falvey in medical charge, and Conductor Parsons in charge of supplies. In overall command was Lieutenant Walter Long, a 23-year old junior officer of the 94th Foot. Long’s force of 76 men were crammed into the town’s fort, which measured 78 yards by 20 yards, and under siege, by an estimated force of 700 Boers, between 5 January and 30 March 1881 (84 days). During the siege, Lieutenant Long, was reportedly frequently ill and as next senior Officer, Surgeon Officer Falvey took over command during such periods.
As an experienced ex Royal Engineer NCO, Conductor Parsons contributed greatly to the organisation of supplies and fortifications, on the eve of and during the siege. Very like James Langley Dalton, V.C., often called real hero of the Defence Rorke’s Drift (and also an ex-NCO), it seems Parson’s was very much the brains behind the defence. Not only was Parsons noted for his work on the defences throughout the siege, he was also noted for the gallantry he showed whist leading parties to dislodge the Boers from posts too close to the Fort, as the following records show:
9 January 1881. ‘Annoyance being experienced from the Day sortie, close vicinity of some of the enemy, who had established themselves among the ruins of the old Dutch laager, Conductor Parsons volunteered and gallantly led out a party to dislodge them. Starting at noon with six non-commissioned officers and men, three natives also going with them, the Boers were driven out and made to retire precipitately down the hill. Then throwing down some shelter the latter had constructed, the party returned under a heavy cross-fire, but with only one of the natives wounded.’
11 January 1881. ‘Towards midnight Parsons again distinguished himself. Crawling out to the old Dutch laager, from which some Boers were, firing, he coolly lighted a hand-grenade and pitched it amongst them, causing a loud explosion and fresh stampede, with the good result that the enemy did not reoccupy that ground for some days.’
18 January 1881. ‘Conductor Parsons, with Sergeant Day and five sappers, covered by a supporting party of eight men of the 94th Regiment, under Sergeant Cowdy, sallied forth cautiously to the ruins of the old Dutch laager which had been again occupied by the enemy intending to lay a mine. They, however, failed in this purpose, being discovered after working for some time, and obliged to fall back under heavy fire, though fortunately without casualty.’
4 March 1881 ‘The wire attached to the mine by the old officer mess-building having become covered with debris and overgrown with grass. Conductor Parsons and Volunteer Holmes remained outside the fort, on the night of the 4th, for upwards of an hour, clearing it, while the enemy's rifle-fire continued. They, it was afterwards found, had managed to take up this fougasse without damage to themselves.’
The siege continued until 30 March, when a Lieutenant of the 3/60th arrived with despatches confirming the terms of peace. Casualties during the siege were four killed, including two volunteers and nineteen wounded, or nearly a third of the defenders. As far as recommendations for awards and promotions were concerned, the Transvaal Argus of 17 September 1881 stated: ‘Lieutenant-Colonel Winsloe has been made a CB, besides receiving promotion, no doubt for his gallant defence of the fort at Potchefstroom. Men like him and Lieutenant Dalrymple Hay, like Captain Auchinlech, who so gallantly held the fort at Rustenburg, and like Conductor Parsons, the real defender of Lydenburg, should get some recognition of their gallant conduct.’
The following March, Parsons’ gallantry was indeed recognised and with a Commission of Quartermaster, as reported in the Yorkshire Gazette of 1 April 1882:
‘A Well-Earned Promotion.- The promotion of Conductor William Parsons, of the Commissariat and Transport Staff (Son of Mr. Robert Parsons, formerly of Coney-Street, dentist) to be Quartermaster was gazetted a few days ago, and rarely has a man in the British army better earned his laurels, Quartermaster Parsons was acting-commissariat officer at Lydenburg during the eighty-four days siege of the fort by the Boers a year ago. He rendered such important service during that period as to meet with the special approval of Major-General Sir Evelyn Wood, V.C., and was reported upon as “frequently displaying great gallantry.” Quartermaster Parsons also served through the Zulu War of 1879 and has a medal and clasp. He was formerly a non-commissioned officer in the Royal Engineers, and was employed on the Ordnance Survey in Cornwall and Devon for several years. He is Fellow of the Geological Society, and Associate of King’s College, London.’
Shortly after the War’s end, accusations that Lieutenant Long had behaved cowardly during the siege led to a Court Martial and he was given the choice of resigning his commission or facing a Court decision. It may well have been that his relative inexperience, combined with his frequent illnesses and the fact that his wife was also besieged with him, led to the more experienced Parsons, taking a more of a lead in the defence. However it was also reported that on 10 March, when two Boers appeared under a flag of truce, offering favourable terms of capitulation, Lieutenant Long was in favour of accepting but Surgeon Falvey and Conductor Parsons were strongly against. An argument ensued, during which Surgeon Falvey threatened to place Lieutenant Long under arrest for cowardice. The garrison did not surrender. Long resigned, tragically later taking his own life after the criticism of his conduct during the siege. His wife, Mary Long, who was the sole female present during the siege, worked tirelessly in the improvised hospital and was reportedly an inspiration to all during these desperate days. Indeed, the fortified post was named ‘Fort Mary’ after her. Shortly after the War, she wrote a book on her experience; ‘Peace and War in the Transvaal. An Account of the Defence of Fort Mary, Lydenburg. Of other books,‘The Transvaal War’ by Lady Bellairs, contains a chapter on the Defence of Lydenburg (pages 300-326), during the course of which, Conductor Parsons deeds are mentioned multiple times.
Private Whalen, 94th Foot, and Conductor Charles Jurgenson, together with Sergeant Day of the Royal Engineers were all awarded the DCM for gallantry during the siege of Lydenburg. Parsons was commissioned Quartermaster, specifically for his gallantry during the siege, which at the time was considered a far greater reward, both in rank and from a financial point of view. Parsons served with this rank a year later during the Egyptian campaign of 1882 and later with the Bechuanaland Expedition under Sir Charles Warren, 1884-85.
Note: Sergeant Day’s DCM group, one of just 20 DCM’s awarded for the First Boer War 1880-81, was sold by DNW in December 2016.
Dr David Biggins
Medals to the Commissariat and Transport Staff 9 months 2 weeks ago #81752
The group to Conductor Parsons sold this morning for a hammer price of £6,000. Totals (inc VAT for UK only): £7,728. R152,500. Au$14,140. Can$12,870. US$10,120
Dr David Biggins
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