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John Baker, an A.S.C. man with Crealock's Column 1 year 5 months ago #82724

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John Baker

Private, 5th Company, Army Service Corps – Anglo Zulu War

- South African General Service Medal with 1879 clasp to T/746 PTE J. BAKER, A.S. CORPS

John Baker was born in in the Parish of St. Philip and St. Jacob in Bristol, Gloucestershire in 1844, the son of William Baker, a Mason’s Labourer by trade, and his wife Mary Anne. The first glimpse we have of him comes courtesy of the 1851 census where, at the age of 7, he was with his parents and his siblings James (10), Jane (6), Elizabeth (4) and William (1) in their John Street, Bristol home.

Ten years later, at the time of the 1861 England census, the family were living at Moorfield Buildings in Bristol where Mr Baker was employed as a Painter and Plasterer. Now 18 years old, John was a Labourer by trade who had little or no schooling, a common travail among the working class in early Victorian England where life was a daily grind for many who struggled to make ends meet.
This was perhaps the main reason why, a year later, on 20 January 1862, he attested for service with the Military Train at Bristol.

His stated age was 18 years and 6 months, and he was a Painter by trade, possibly influenced by his father’s occupation. Physically he was 5ft 3 ins in height with a clean complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. His general condition was described as "healthy".

Baker, as we have already established, was illiterate – he could neither read nor write and his mark “X” was witnessed by John Chapman. Enlisting for a Bounty of £1 and a Free Kit for a period of 12 years, he was re-examined at Woolwich on 24th Jan. '62 and was passed fit for service with number 3658 and the rank of Private. His early military career got off to a rocky start with stints of imprisonment in the cells between 5 and 7 April 1864 and 1 to 3 August 1867 featuring on his service record.

On 22 February 1870 the Military Train was renamed the Army Service Corps and Baker’s number was changed to T/746 – the “T” denoting the fact that he was part of the Transport section of the A.S.C. Three months later, on 25 May 1870 he re-engaged at Dublin to complete 21 years’ service.

Baker’s entire service was home-based until, in the aftermath of the British reverse at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, the call went out for additional troops to augment the numbers lost to disease, wounded or killed in action – a steadily rising toll among all three categories.

On 17 January 1879, a week before his comrades were shedding their blood on the Mountain of Death, Baker was standing before a Magistrate in the Registry Office in Woolwich tying the marital knot with Anne Byrne. As an aside, the family living next to the Baker’s in 1861 had the surname Byrne – one can’t help wondering whether or not this was his wife-to-be’s family.

Less than a month later, on 22 February 1879 he sailed for Zululand and the war; departing from the Victoria Dock - part of the Royal group of docks in East London - onboard the hired transport Queen Margaret. The ship docked in Durban on 29th March 1879 – the first day of service in South Africa for Baker and his comrades of the 5th Company, A.S.C.

An article in the Edinburgh Evening News of 24 February carried the news that,

“At 8 o’ clock on Saturday morning the 5th Company of the Transport Branch of the Army Service Corps left Woolwich for Zululand. They were in command of Commissary General Morris, and consisted of 5 officers, 250 men, 14 wagons, 200 horses and 50 mules. The wives and grown up children of the soldiers assembled in large numbers to witness their departure, and some very painful scenes occurred.

The men were cheered lustily as they went from the barracks. The mules attracted considerable attention. These animals were purchased in Sicily, the Ionian Islands and Spain and are specially adapted for the hardships of a Cape campaign (the correspondent obviously didn’t know his geography). They will be employed in conveying on their backs the mountain guns through long grass and brushwood and other rough places where gun carriages cannot pass.”

If the assembly of adequate forces to beat the Zulu had stretched the manpower and armoury of the colony to the limit, the problems of supplying and maintaining such an army with food, water, fuel, ammunition, tentage, equipment, and above all, transportation for these commodities, presented even greater difficulties. Reckoning that operations would only last between 6 weeks and 2 months, Chelmsford realised that 1,800 tons of stores would be needed to accompany the army. The most common form of transport in South Africa was the ox wagon, 18 feet long and 6 feet wide, which required between 14 and 18 animals to draw it. To keep the oxen in good working trim, 16 hours a day had to be allowed for their grazing and rest, so that on the rough dirt tracks only about 10 miles a day could be covered, even under good conditions. Zululand had no proper roads, more often than what passed for roads were strewn with boulders, scarred by water courses or churned up by rain. Also herds of cattle had to be driven to supply the men with fresh meat. Thus, a military column would stretch for miles and be an easy target for fast-moving Zulus. Chelmsford's staff were kept busy collecting the necessary transports, and with inflated prices the expense was enormous. In January 1879 they had 977 wagons, 56 carts, 10,023 oxen, 803 horses and 398 mules, with 2,000 extra natives to drive and manage them.

As part of the 5th Company, commanded in the field by Assistant Commissary John Smith, of the Commissariat & Transport Department, Baker was with General Henry Crealock’s 1st Division. It was they who moved up the coast to the relief of Eshowe.
Major-General Crealock, as mentioned, was in command of the Coastal Column, First Division. He arrived on 1st April 1879 and was tasked with establishing a staging post on the Amatikulu River which he named Fort Crealock. He was then required to set up another supply depot on the Inyezane River which was named Fort Chelmsford. Having established these two depots, he was to proceed to the Zulu kraals at ema-Ngwene and Undi just south of the Umhlatuzi River, and destroy them. The supplies needed to stock the depots far exceeded the capacity of the wagons at Crealock's disposal so several trips back and forth were required. It was to take until 19th June before the whole of the 1st Division was concentrated with its supplies at Fort Chelmsford. It took another three days for his column to travel six miles to the next river, the Umlalazi, where Fort Napoleon was built. The rate of progress caused his column to be nicknamed Crealock's Crawlers.

In total, Baker spent 230 days under the harsh African sun. This included treatment for a Fistula in his knee for which he received treatment in Durban on 28 May 1879. His tour of duty ceased on 9 October 1879, and he was returned home to England. For his efforts, Baker was awarded the Zulu War medal with 1879 clasp.

Back on home soil, Baker renewed his acquaintance with his wife who blessed him with a son, William, on 9 August 1880. He was based at the Curragh Camp in Kildare, Ireland when this happy event took place. His time in uniform was fast coming to an end with his 21st year of service around the corner. Baker took his discharge at Shorncliffe on 15 January 1882. During his time in the army, he had not availed himself of any educational opportunities that presented themselves. Consequently, he was not “in possession of a Cert. of Education". His Character on discharge was rated as "Very good” and he was in possession of four Good Conduct badges".

Now out of uniform, he remained in Ireland, opening a News Agent business (which was rather ironic for a man who could still not read or write). His address between the years 1885 and 1904 was 28 Ranelagh Street, Ranelagh, Dublin with the 1901 Ireland census confirming the above details.

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John Baker, an A.S.C. man with Crealock's Column 1 year 5 months ago #82727

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Thank you, Rory an an interesting article and fabulous photographs.
Dr David Biggins
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