1900, Ladysmith

DIGBY JONES, ROBERT JAMES THOMAS, Lieutenant, was born 27 September 1876, son of Charles Digby Jones and Aimee Susanna Digby Jones (nee Christie). He was educated first at Alnmouth, Northumberland, and afterwards at Sedbergh School, Yorkshire. A notice in 'Rouge et Noir' (the Wilson's House periodical, published at Sedbergh) for February 1900, says: "The death of R J T Digby Jones ... will have been received by all Wilsonites, past and present, with deep regret, though doubtless mingled with a certain sense of pride for an old schoolfellow who gave up his life in his country's cause; for the fact that he died the best of all deaths, fighting with con­spicuous bravery for the Queen and the Flag, brings unbounded honour to Serbergh and to the House, which will always, we feel sure, be justly proud of him. He was a member of this House from May, 1800, till December 1893. He was in the House Eleven for two, and the Fifteen for three years, gaining his 1st Twelve Colours before he left. He was also a member of the House Eight, a strong swimmer and an excellent skater, and gained his 2nd Eleven Cap for his bowling in 1893. He also obtained the Sedgwick Mathematical Prize in the same year. In a word, he was a capital all-round athlete; twice in succession he won the boys' Scratch Gold Medal at North Berwick. He passed into Woolwich in 1894, thirty-fourth in order of merit, and was fifth when bifurcating for the Royal Engineers; passing out sixth in the Royal Engineer Division, and obtaining his commission on 5 August 1896. After a course of instruction at Chatham he was posted to the 23rd Field Company, Royal Engineers. While at Chatham he was Secretary of the Royal Engineers' Football Club, and one of its foremost players. He was also Secretary of the Royal Engineers' Golf Club, forming one of the team in the annual inter-regimental matches with the Royal Artillery in the years 1897,1898 and 1899, and doing the best round for the Sappers in 1899. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1899. He accompanied the 23rd Field Company, Royal Engineers (under the command of Major S R Rice, RE) to Natal in June, 1899, proceeding straight to Ladysmith, where he was employed in the construction of a hospital in the Camp (afterwards abandoned when the siege began), and afterwards on the defences of the town. At Ladysmith, he speedily made a name for himself by blowing up with gun-cotton a 4.7 howitzer mounted on Surprise Hill, which threw a 40 lb shell and had been causing much annoyance to the garrison. Early on the morning of the 11th December, five companies of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade, under Colonel Metcalfe, and some Sappers and Engineers under Lieutenant Digby Jones, marched out, and reached the foot of the slope before being challenged, when the order was given to fix bayonets and charge, and, under a heavy fire, the rifles moved up the slope with admirable steadiness. The Boers did not wait for the cold steel, but fled, removing the howitzer before they went, which caused a short delay. It was, however, soon found on the crest of a hill ten yards distant. Protected by a ring of rifles, Lieutenant Digby Jones and his Engineers fixed charges of gun-cotton to the muzzle and breach of the howitzer and applied the fuse. Two minutes—the length of the fuse—three minutes, five minutes passed, and there was no explosion. Something must have happened to the fuse. Lieutenant Digby Jones went back and lighted another. Two minutes later the muzzle of the howitzer split into fragments with a roar and a brilliant flame. The work was done, and with a loud cheer the companies of the Rifle Brigade began their march back to camp. Their return was, however, barred by the Boers, who had had plenty of time to reinforce their beaten comrades. But, using the bayonet freely, they burst through, losing 2 killed, 25 wounded, and the same number missing. The Boers admitted they had lost 28 men killed; so their actual losses must have been heavier than ours". The following account of the enemy's attack on Wagon Hill is contained in a report from Major S R Rice, Officer Commanding 23rd Field Company, to the Chief Engineer, Natal: "At 6.30 pm , on the 5th January 1900, a party of 33 NCO's and men of the 23rd Company left our camp at Ladysmith for night work on Wagon Hill, Lieutenant R J T Digby Jones was the Officer in Charge. Their duties were to make a second (or upper) emplacement for a naval 12-pr gun; to assist in mounting a 4.7-inch gun, which was coming that night from Junction Hill, in the sunken emplacement already prepared; and to fix a platform in the lower 12-pr emplacement. A working party of 50 Infantry was also provided for Lieutenant Digby Jones. They joined at Wagon Hill without arms, and left at 2.30 am on the 6th on completion of the work required of them. A party of 10 RN under Mr Sim, RN, assisted by a working party of 100 infantry, was detailed for the movement of the 4.7-inch gun. In addition, an escort of 70 infantry was provided. The permanent garrison of that end of Wagon Hill consisted of 25 Imperial Light Horse, with 2 officers. At about 5 am on the 6th a report reached our camp that the enemy were on Wagon Hill, and that Lieutenant Jones's detachment had been captured. This was the first intimation we (RE) had of any attack. The firing of guns had been heard for some time previously, but at that period of the siege this was not an unusual occurrence. In case of attack the orders were for the CRA, CRE, etc, to proceed to head­quarters. But in view of the report I thought it best to ascertain personally what had occurred, so I rode out as quickly as possible, meeting Lieutenant Digby Jones on the top of Wagon Hill at 5.45 am. Our men were then lining the front ridge of the plateau (Wagon Hill, W), exchanging a hot fire with the enemy on their front and left flank; and Major Miller-Wallnutt, Gordon Highlanders, was present and in charge. Second Lieutenant G B B Denniss, the RE officer detailed by me for duty with that section of the defences, had already arrived. Lieutenant Digby Jones gave me a very clear and full report of what had occurred within his observation up to the time of my arrival. I have also heard the statements of various NCO's and men of his party. In the following brief account of what occurred throughout the day I have relied on these reports in connection with anything recorded that did not come within my personal observation. On the arrival of the various parties at Wagon Hill, W, on the night of the 5th, work proceeded as usual until 2.45 am on the 6th, when, without previous warning, musketry fire was opened on them from the outer crestline of Wagon Hill proper, on their left flank, at a distance of about 150 yards. At that time Lieutenant Digby Jones and about 25 of his party were working at the upper 12-pr emplacement. The remaining 8 were fixing the platform in the lower 12-pr emplacement at the W extremity of the hill, distant about 70 yards. Digby Jones at once ordered the party to stand to their arms, which were piled by them; kicked over the lanterns, which were evidently attracting the enemy's fire; extended his men from right to left, and opened fire in return on the place whence they were being fired upon. The RN who were near the 4.7-inch emplacement also stood to their arms, under Mr Sim. The party of Imperial Light Horse also fell in with their officers. Some of the Gordon Highlanders fell in with Digby Jones' party. Naturally a good deal of hurry and confusion occurred at first; but none of the parties mentioned above ever left, or were driven off, the top of the hill. Both ILH officers were wounded almost at once, and Lieutenant Digby Jones took command, remaining in charge of the various parties until 5.15 am, when reinforcements (ILH and Gordon Highlanders, under Major Miller-Wallnutt) commenced to arrive. Shortly after the action opened Digby Jones pushed his men forward about 40 yards, with bayonets fixed, and occupied the outer crest of the hill; the ILH also moved forward; and the RN party, with 8 sappers, occupied the lower 12-pr emplacement and the outer crest of the right flank. The reinforcements, on arrival, took up practically the same positions, and absorbed the original defenders. In my official report to the Chief Staff Officer I brought to notice the steadiness of the men and the great coolness and resource shown by Lieutenant Digby Jones in the trying circumstances in which he was suddenly called upon to act. I think I may draw attention, too, in this account to the value of the rule, which obtains in this unit, of never allowing the men, under any circumstances, to leave their camp for work without taking their arms with them, and of insisting on the arms being piled close to them whilst at work. Firing on both sides continued heavily before and after my arrival on the spot. We (RE) had several casualties at this time, principally from the fire of a small party of the enemy (about 15, I was told) who were lying among the rocks on our left flank, on the outer slopes of Wagon Hill proper, about 200 yards off. Other units suffered equally. At about 9 am it was decided to attempt to turn out these men by a bayonet charge by the troops on Wagon Hill proper, and at Major Miller-Wallnutt's request, I formed a section of RE and RN at the lower 12-pr emplacement, to support the charge by firing volleys on a knoll about 900 yards on our left front, whence the enemy were protecting by their rifle-fire their comrades above mentioned. I placed Mr Sim, RN, in charge of this party. The attempt was made and failed, Lieutenant Todd, King's Royal Rifles, being killed. Shortly afterwards firing on both sides slackened, and at about 10.15 am ceased almost entirely. The situation then appeared to be that the attack had been completely beaten off. I was informed that it had been decided to leave the small party of the enemy on the outer slopes of Wagon Hill proper until nightfall, when they could be effectually dealt with. They were considered to be cut off from the rest of their force. This assumption afterwards proved to be wrong, as they could be, and were, reinforced under cover of the banks of a donga which ran almost up to the position they occupied. At about 11.16 am I rode into Ladysmith to report myself to headquarters. Before leaving, I told Lieutenant Digby Jones that if Major Miller-Wallnutt had no objection, he might collect his men near the 4.7-inch emplacement, and give them some food which I had sent for. This he did, and fortunately so, as the party was reformed in time for the attack made shortly afterwards. After reporting at headquarters, I returned to Wagon Hill, arriving there about 1.30 pm Near the 4.7-inch emplacement I met some of my men. The senior NCO reported to me that both Digby Jones and Denniss were killed, and that they had had several other casualties. It appears that about midday the attack was renewed. A small party of Boers suddenly appeared within a few yards of the men on the outer crest, about fifteen yards from the 4.7-inch emplacement, evidently having ascended unperceived from the lower part of the outer slope. After a few rounds a panic seized the defenders, and they retired in disorder and confusion to the rear crest, and in some cases down the rear slope of the hill. Two Boers (Field Cornets de Villiers and de Jagers, I believe) then advanced to the 4.7-inch emplacement, in and around which Digby Jones and his detachment were resting and having some food. Apparently the retirement of the infantry defenders had been unnoticed by them, and the first intimation they had of the enemy being on the top of the hill was a shot, delivered over the parapet at a distance of a few feet, which killed Second Corporal Hunt, RE. In a moment Digby Jones picked up a rifle, dashed round the end of the epaulement, and killed de Villiers. Lance Corporal Hockaday, RE, at the same time shot de Jagers dead. Digby Jones was then heard to say, 'What's up? The infantry have gone'. A man replied: 'There is an order to retire, sir'. Jones said: 'I have had no order to retire. ' A sergeant of the ILH who was near him said: 'Don't let's retire, sir; let's give them Elandslaagte again'. I think this sergeant's name was Howard; he was killed afterwards. Digby Jones at once ordered bayonets to be fixed, and, calling on his men to follow him, led them (with Denniss) at the charge, reoccupying the firing-line in front of the 4.7-inch emplacement. Some Boers were seen by our men disappearing down the slope as they advanced. Heavy firing recommenced on both sides. After a short time the men who had been driven from the front were reinforced and moved forward into their places again I think it was then that Major Miller-Walhiutt was unfortunately killed, but I am not sure as regards this point. At all events, the sappers were ordered back to the 4.7-inch emplacement, and were gradually withdrawn as the infantry came up. These latter had no officer with them (owing to casualties, I believe), and Digby Jones, acting under orders, went out to the centre of the ridge with the object of moving the men well forward at that point to their proper firing position. While performing this duty he was struck by a bullet in the throat, which killed him immediately. Shortly afterwards, Denniss was heard to say 'I hear Mr Digby Jones is hit; I am going to see to him". He was afterwards seen moving about on the sky-line carrying a stretcher. I found the bodies of these two most brave and promising young officers lying close to each other, about fifteen yards in front of the upper 12-pounder emplacement. At about 6.30 pm , with the approval of General Ian Hamilton, I sent into Ladysmith for a fresh detachment of 33 NCO's and men with two officers; they were brought out by Lieutenant Turner. On their arrival I took what remained of Lieutenant Digby Jones's party back to camp, which they reached at 10.30 pm after 28 hours' continuous work and fighting. I returned to Wagon Hill at midnight in anticipation of further fighting, but none occurred. The names of several NCO's and men were specially mentioned by me in my official report; and I think it will be admitted that all of Lieutenant Digby Jones's party did their duty in a way that reflects credit on themselves and their corps. The following were our losses: Killed— Lieutenant R J T Digby Jones, 2nd Lieutenant G B B Denniss, Sergeant C Jackson, 2nd Corporal K Hunt, Lance Corporal H Bailey, and Sappers Simmons, Bland and Cox. Wounded—Sappers McCarron, Powell, Catchpole, Hudson and Butt". Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says of the fighting on Wagon Hill: "There fought the gallant De Villiers, while Ian Hamilton rallied the defenders and led them in repeated rushes against the enemy's line. Con­tinually reinforced from below, the Boers fought with extraordinary resolution. Never will anyone who witnessed that Homeric contest question the valour of our foes. It was a murderous business on both sides. Edwardes of the Light Horse was struck down. In a gun emplacement a strange encounter took place at point-blank range between a group of Boers and of Britons. De Villiers of the Free State shot Miller-Wallnutt dead. Ian Hamilton fired at De Villiers with his revolver and missed him. Young Albrecht of the Light Horse shot De Villiers. A Boer named De Jaeger shot Albrecht. Digby Jones of the Sappers shot De Jaeger. Only a few minutes later the gallant lad, who had already won fame enough for a veteran, was himself mortally wounded, and Denniss, his comrade in arms and glory, fell by his side". The 'South African Review' (24 February 1900) in a paragraph on Lieutenant Digby Jones says: "So far as can be humanly judged, it was this officer who saved Ladysmith and the British arms from the mortification of a defeat and its incalculable consequences". General Ian Hamilton, who had witnessed Lieutenant Digby Jones's gallant and resourceful conduct throughout the day, decided to recommend him for the Victoria Cross, which recommendation was fully approved by Sir George White and brought forward in his despatch. The London Gazette of 8 August 1902 says: "Robert James Thomas Digby Jones, Royal Engineers; H Albrecht, No 459, Trooper, Imperial Light Horse. Would have been recommended for the Victoria Cross had they survived, on account of their having during the attack on Wagon Hill (Ladysmith), on 6 January 1900, displayed conspicuous bravery and gallant conduct in leading the force which reoccupied the top of the hill at a critical moment just as the three foremost attacking Boers reached it, the leader being shot by Lieutenant Jones and the two others by Albrecht". The Victoria Cross was given to Lieutenant Digby Jones's relatives in accordance with the regulations of 8 August 1902. The writer in 'Rouge et Noir' remarks that it is rather a striking circumstance that his younger brother, O G Digby Jones, obtained his commission in the RE on the very day on which his brother was killed".

VC, QSA (1) DofL.

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