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1st Battalion

The 1st Battalion sailed on the Cheshire on 9th November 1899, and arrived at the Cape on 28th November. When the war broke out the old 75th, or Dargai battalion, were the garrison at Edinburgh. On the day after Nicholson's Nek, when it was seen more troops were needed, the battalion was ordered to sail nine days later, and on their arrival in South Africa it was not to be expected that so efficient a battalion would be long at the base. Within ten days of their arrival they were thrown into the bloody field of Magersfontein to help their hardly-pressed brothers in the Highland Brigade. The story of the fatal day has been briefly told under the Black Watch, but as the Gordons were not in the brigade a sketch of their doings may be given. In his despatch of 15th February 1900 Lord Methuen says: "At 12 noon I ordered the battalion of the Gordons, which was with the supply column, to support the Highland Brigade. The trenches, even after the bombardment by lyddite and shrapnel since daybreak, were too strongly held to be cleared. The Gordons advanced in separate half-battalions, and though the attack could not be carried home the battalion did splendid work throughout the day".

Lord Methuen afterwards says that Colonel Downman of the Gordons gave the order to "retire" after the right flank of the Gordons had become exposed to an enfilade fire. This retirement by Colonel Downman's order Lord Methuen seems to describe as unfortunate. The despatch is printed under the 2nd Black Watch; it is not quite clear on this and some other points.

It is only fair to the memory of Colonel Downman and to his battalion to state that there are the best possible grounds for believing that Lord Methuen was not accurately informed of what did take place. Two officers, a doctor, the late Colonel Downman's signalling sergeant, and a private, who were all close to him when he fell, concur in stating that when the enfilade fire on the right of the Gordons commenced Colonel Downman rose up and ran towards the right, he shouted and signalled to throw back the right and bring up the left, this being the only effectual method of meeting the flanking fire. While giving these orders the colonel was mortally wounded.

The Gordons' losses at Magersfontein were Colonel Downman and 2 other officers and 4 men killed, and 2 officers and 35 men wounded. Captain Towse, who afterwards got the VC, and 2 non-commissioned officers were mentioned in Lord Methuen's despatch for great gallantry.

When Lord Roberts arrived at Modder River early in February, the Gordons, along with the 2nd Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, the 2nd Shropshire Light Infantry, and the Canadian Regiment, were placed in the 19th Brigade under Smith-Dorrien, and the IXth Division under General Colvile. Some account of the very fine work of the brigade, from its formation to the taking of Pretoria, is given under the Cornwalls; but in some actions the 1st Gordons had bits of the play all to themselves, and these it is not out of place to refer to here.

At Paardeberg the Gordons were not so heavily engaged on the 18th as the other battalions of the division, but, like the others, they did very fine work on that and during the next nine days. On the night of the 22nd the Gordons relieved the Shropshires in the advanced trenches up the river bed, the men having to crawl on their stomachs in carrying out the relief. In the final move forward on the night of the 27th they supported the Canadians in their splendid advance, by which our troops got established within 80 yards of Cronje's trenches, which, as Lord Roberts said in his telegram of 27th February 1900 and despatch of 28th February, "apparently clinched matters". At Paardeberg the Gordons had 4 officers wounded and about 25 other casualties.

Three officers, 5 non-commissioned officers, and 1 private were mentioned by Lord Roberts in his despatch of 31st March for their good work up to the taking of Bloemfontein.

At Hout Nek on 30th April, after the 19th Brigade had become part of Ian Hamilton's division, the Boer position was found to be very strong and held with great determination. Mr Churchill, in describing a critical part of the action, when the enemy were receiving continual reinforcements, says: "At last about two o'clock some one hundred and fifty of the German Corps of the Boer force advanced from the northern point of Thoba in four lines across the table-top to drive the British off the hill. So regular was their order that it was not until their levelled rifles were seen pointing south that they were recognised as foes, and artillery opened on them. In spite of an accurate shell-fire they continued to advance boldly against the highest part of the hill, and meanwhile, cloaked by a swell of the ground, Captain Towse of the Gordon Highlanders, with twelve men of his own regiment and ten of Kitchener's Horse, was steadily moving towards them. The scene on the broad stage of the Thoba plateau was intensely dramatic. The whole army were the witnesses. The two forces, strangely disproportioned, drew near to each other. Neither was visible to the other. The unexpected collision impended. From every point field glasses were turned on the spectacle, and even hardened soldiers held their breath. At last, with suddenness, both parties came face to face at fifty yards' distance. The Germans, who had already made six prisoners, called loudly on Captain Towse and his little band to surrender. What verbal answer was returned is not recorded; but a furious splutter of musketry broke out at once, and in less than a minute the long lines of the enemy recoiled in confusion, and the top of the hill was secured to the British". It was on this occasion that Captain Towse was blinded by a bullet. Thus, as Mr Churchill says, "do Misery and Joy walk hand in hand on the field of war".

An officer who was present thinks the enemy took no prisoners, certainly he took no Gordons.

One month later at Doornkop or Florida, south-west of Johannesburg, the whole battalion got its chance, and as usual took it. As has been explained elsewhere (see Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry), Ian Hamilton's force had been thrown across the front of the main army and had become the army of the left flank. On 29th May it was seen the enemy were strongly posted and clearly meant to make a stand on the ridges south of the main Rand and south-west of Florida. French with the cavalry tried a wide turning movement from the British left, but the ground was very difficult and progress slow. Late in the afternoon it was apparent the infantry must do it, and by the now dreaded frontal attack. It is very wrong to quote again a long passage from Mr Churchill, but if the objection were made by any one jealous of the Gordons, it might be replied that another eyewitness, Mr March Phillipps, of the Imperial Yeomanry, the clever author of 'With Rimington', describes the scene in terms almost identical with the following, and he too characterises the advance as, "I think, the finest performance I have seen in the whole campaign ": "The leading battalion of the 19th Brigade chanced, for there was no selection, to be the Gordon Highlanders, nor was it without a thrill that I watched this famous regiment move against the enemy. Their extension and advance were conducted with machine-like regularity. The officers explained what was required to the men. They were to advance rapidly until under rifle-fire, and then to push on or not as they might be instructed. With impassive unconcern the veterans of Chitral, Dargai, the Bara Valley, Magersfontein, Paardeberg, and Hout Nek walked leisurely forward, and the only comment recorded was the observation of a private, 'Bill, this looks like being a kopje day'. Gradually the whole battalion drew out clear of the covering ridge, and long dotted lines of brown figures filled the plain". After speaking of the artillery-fire, Mr Churchill says: "Yet when every allowance has been made for skilful direction and bold leading, the honours, equally with the cost of the victory, belong more to the Gordon Highlanders than to all the other troops put together. The rocks against which they advanced proved in the event to be the very heart of the enemy's position. The grass in front of them was burnt and burning, and against this dark background the khaki figures showed distinctly. The Dutch held their fire until the attack was within 800 yards, and then, louder than the cannonade, the ominous rattle of concentrated rifle-fire burst forth. The black slope was spotted as thickly with grey puffs of dust where the bullets struck as with advancing soldiers, and tiny figures falling by the way told of heavy loss. But the advance neither checked nor quickened. With remorseless stride, undisturbed by peril or enthusiasm, the Gordons swept steadily onward, changed direction half left to avoid, as far as possible, an enfilade fire, changed again to the right to effect a lodgment on the end of the ridge most suitable to attack, and at last rose up together to charge. The black slope twinkled like jet with the unexpected glitter of bayonets. The rugged sky line bristled with kilted figures, as, in perfect discipline and disdainful silence, those splendid soldiers closed on their foe. The Boers shrank from the contact. Discharging their magazines furiously, and firing their guns twice at point-blank range, they fled in confusion to the main ridge, and the issue of the action was no longer undecided". The Gordons were led by Lieutenant Colonel Burney and by Colonel Forbes Macbean, who has perhaps seen more hard fighting than any officer now alive and with his regiment.

In closing his description of this action Mr March Phillipps says: "To walk steadily on through a fire of this sort, which gets momentarily hotter and better aimed as he diminishes the distance between himself and the enemy, in expectation every instant of knowing 'what it feels like', is the highest test of courage that a soldier in these days can give ... Knowing exactly from experience what lay in front of them, these Gordons were as cool as cucumbers. As they lay among the stones with us before beginning the advance, I spoke to several, answering their questions and pointing them out the lie of the ground and the Boer position. You could not have detected the least trace of anxiety or concern in any of them. The front rank, when the order to advance was given, stepped down with a swing of the kilt and a swagger that only a Highland regiment has. 'Steady on the left', they took their dressing as they reached the flat. Some one sang out, 'When under fire wear a cheerful face'; and the men laughingly passed the word along, 'When under fire wear a cheerful face'".

In a telegram to 'The Morning Post' their brilliant correspondent remarked, "There is no doubt they are the finest regiment in the world". Such a sentence might cause heart-burnings, but at least there is some ground for it. The reference in Lord Roberts' telegram, "whose advance excited the admiration of all", is alone sufficient to make the men of the north-east of Scotland very proud.

The losses of the Gordons were severe. Real glory is never to be bought by a regiment at a low price. Captain St John Meyrick and 19 men were killed, Lieutenant Colonel Burney and other 8 officers and about 70 men were wounded. The three officers of the Volunteer company were among the wounded. Corporal J F Mackay was awarded the VC for conspicuous bravery in dressing the wounds of comrades and carrying one man some distance under very heavy fire.

On 10th July Smith-Dorrien was directed to take the Gordons and Shropshires to Krugersdorp to collect supplies north-west of that town. On the 11th the enemy were found very strongly posted. Two guns were pushed too far forward and could not be taken back by horses. Fifteen out of 17 gunners were shot down, but this did not deter the Gordons from making a desperate effort, and ultimately the guns were recovered. Captain and Adjutant W E Gordon rushed out and tied a rope to a gun, and then got his men to haul it back. Captain Gordon got the VC, and Captain Younger would also have got the coveted honour had he not died of wounds he received. Captain Gordon had been dangerously wounded at Magersfontein.

When Lord Roberts had advanced eastwards to about Belfast, it was seen that the country north of that and on the way to Lydenburg was so difficult that General Buller with two brigades would not be able to attain his objective. Accordingly a column consisting of the 1st Royal Scots, 1st Royal Irish Regiment, and 1st Gordons, with ten guns, was placed under General Ian Hamilton to penetrate northwards and on the left flank of Buller.

When Buller and Ian Hamilton had occupied Lydenburg, where, by the way, the 1st and 2nd Battalions had a memorable meeting, Hamilton turned south again to the main line and then marched to Koomati Poort. Here again, on 30th September, the Gordons had a misfortune through an explosion among some ammunition which had been left by the Boers. One man was killed and 1 officer and 19 men were injured. In November the battalion was operating near Belfast under Smith-Dorrien, and on the 2nd had some stiff rear-guard fighting, in which they lost 1 man killed and 1 officer and 7 men wounded.

Twenty-seven officers and 39 non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in Lord Roberts' final despatch, but these commendations embraced both 1st and 2nd Battalions.

The 1st Battalion formed part of the garrison of Belfast when it was attacked on 7th to 8th January 1901. The attack was repulsed, the Gordons' losses being 3 killed and 14 wounded. General Ben Viljoen in his book on the war deals with the attack on Belfast, and lavishes great praise on the defenders, the Royal Irish Regiment and Gordon Highlanders.

The battalion was to have no more heavy fighting. Their history after this date is like that of most of the infantry, garrison and blockhouse work, varied by a trek as occasion arose. Always doing well,, mixed up in no regrettable incidents, the Dargai battalion all through the two and a half years' fighting which they saw maintained their splendid reputation absolutely unsullied, and confirmed the opinion long formed by competent judges that as a fighting unit they could not be excelled.

Towards the close of the war the battalion was brought to the Pretoria district.

The Mounted Infantry company of the battalion was with Colonel De Lisle when that officer was assisting to drive the enemy out of Cape Colony in January and February 1901, and they were also with him when acting under General Elliot in the north-east of the Orange River Colony, May to July 1901. On 5th June Major Sladen (East Yorkshire Regiment) marched to Graspan, near Reitz, to intercept a convoy. The laager was found in the early morning of the 6th and captured, 45 prisoners being taken. Major Sladen sent back 40 men to inform Colonel De Lisle. About noon 500 Boers under Fourie, Delarey, and De Wet made a determined attempt to recapture the convoy. "During the close fighting which ensued the Boers succeeded in removing some of the captured waggons, which were parked outside the position, but failed to make any impression on the defence". In his telegram of 15th June Lord Kitchener said the Mounted Infantry "behaved with great gallantry". Reinforcements arrived at three, and the enemy retired in haste, and were pursued, the waggons being taken again. The Gordons lost Lieutenant Cameron and 10 men killed and 10 wounded. Lieutenant Cameron was mentioned in despatches. Lieutenant White got the DSO for "having been taken prisoner, and stripped, escaped, ran six miles, and brought up reinforcements". Sergeant Sutherland got the distinguished conduct medal for preventing the escape of 40 prisoners, although the enemy was within ten yards and he severely wounded in bringing in a comrade. Four others of the little band were mentioned for great courage and example. The sorrows of horsemanship had not affected the Highlanders' pluck. A few other mentions were picked up in the latter phases of the war. In the supplementary or final despatch 7 officers and 6 non-commissioned officers of the Gordons were mentioned, but these embraced both battalions.

2nd Battalion

The 2nd Battalion was one of the four infantry battalions which, along with three cavalry regiments and three batteries of artillery, were despatched from India to Natal in September 1899, when war was a foregone conclusion.

The 2nd Gordons were part of the force in Ladysmith when General Penn-Symons and his force were at Dundee, and they were not at Talana Hill, but, along with the 1st Devon and 1st Manchester, were brigaded under Colonel Ian Hamilton, and with him fought at Elandslaagte, 21st October 1899 (see 1st Devonshire Regiment).

The 2nd Gordons took a very prominent part in that battle, and out of the five companies present—about 425 officers and men—they had 123 casualties. Major Denne and 4 lieutenants were killed. Colonel W H Dick-Cunyngham and 7 other officers were wounded; 27 men were killed and 83 wounded. Only 3 officers present were untouched. The action brought two VC's to the battalion, those of Lieutenant Meiklejohn and Sergeant Major Robertson. Three officers and 1 non-commissioned officer were mentioned in Sir G White's despatch of 2nd December 1899.

On 24th October General White fought the battle of Rietfontein in order to engage the attention of the Boers and prevent them attacking General Yule's column, then retreating from Dundee. The Gordons did not take part in that action. On mournful Monday, 30th October, the battle known as Lombard's Kop, Farquhar's Farm, and Nicholson's Nek—really the battle of Ladysmith—was fought (see 1st Liverpool Regiment). The 2nd Gordons, along with the 1st Devon, 1st Manchester, and 2nd Rifle Brigade, still under Colonel Ian Hamilton, were in the centre; but the real fighting took place entirely on the flanks, the left, which was in the air, being captured bodily and the right being forced to retire. That retirement Hamilton's men covered, and but for them and the artillery it might have become a rout. On 6th January the great attack on Ladysmith took place. It had been said that the Boers would not act on the offensive; that day disproved the assertion. The brunt of the attack fell on Caesar's Camp and Waggon Hill, neither of which had been intrenched quite as they should have been (see 2nd Rifle Brigade). The defenders at first were—on Caesar's Camp the 1st Man-chesters, the 42nd RFA, some sailors with a 12-pounder gun, and some Natal Volunteers; on Waggon Hill three companies King's Royal Rifles and a squadron Imperial Light Horse, besides some Royal Engineers and a working party of Gordons who were preparing a gun-emplacement. Waggon Hill was attacked at 2.30 am and Caesar's Camp at 3 am. At daylight the Imperial Light Horse reached Waggon Hill and the Gordons Caesar's Camp, followed by four companies 1st King's Royal Rifles and four companies 2nd King's Royal Rifles to Waggon Hill and the 2nd Rifle Brigade to Caesar's Camp. Early in the forenoon the 5th Lancers arrived at Caesar's Camp and the 18th Hussars at Waggon Hill. The 5th Dragoon Guards and one and a half squadrons of the 19th Hussars further reinforced Waggon Hill about four o'clock. Fiercer fighting was not seen in the whole campaign, and it raged on both hills from daybreak till 5 pm, when a final charge by three companies of the 1st Devons under Colonel Park cleared the enemy from Waggon Hill. About the same hour some companies of the Gordons, Rifle Brigade, and Manchester Regiment cleared Caesar's Camp ridge in fine style.

The battalion lost very heavily. Colonel W H Dick-Cunyngham was killed in the town by a stray bullet early in the morning. Major Miller-Wallnut, recklessly brave, and 17 men were also killed. Two officers and about 30 men were wounded. Two officers and 6 non-commissioned officers were mentioned in Sir George White's despatch of 23rd March 1900.

After Ladysmith was relieved and its defenders had recuperated the battalion took part in General Buller's northward movement. They had sharp fighting at Rooikopjes, near Amersfoort, 24th July 1900, when they did well, the Volunteer company being specially mentioned by General Buller and in Lord Roberts' telegraphic despatch of 30th July. The battalion lost 3 men killed, and Captain Rodger of the London Scottish and 12 men wounded. On 21st August General Buller was stoutly opposed at Van Wyk's Vlei, and on that occasion the battalion had heavy fighting, in which they lost 9 killed and 9 wounded. At Bergendal (see 2nd Rifle Brigade) the battalion were in the supporting line, but the work of their maxim under Corporal Macdonald was specially referred to by the general in his despatch of 13th September 1900. They afterwards went with General Buller to Lydenburg, and on a hill-top in that district they met the 1st Gordons, who had done the campaign from the western side. It was while in close order on the march to Lydenburg that the battalion had the misfortune to be found by a shell from a Boer 6-inch gun seven miles away. Three men of the Volunteer company were killed and 16 wounded. General Buller subsequently referred to the splendid steadiness of the men in this no ordinary trial. On 8th September the 2nd Gordons were heavily engaged near Spitz Kop, in the Lydenburg district, having about 21 casualties.

In General Buller's final despatch of 9th November 1900 he mentioned 6 officers, 2 non-commissioned officers, and 1 man.

In October the battalion was taken to Pretoria, and on the 25th of that month they, along with a portion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, represented Scotland at the ceremony of proclaiming the annexation. In March 1901 they went to Pietersburg with General Plumer, and in that district they were employed until they left South Africa for India shortly before peace was declared.

On 4th July 1901 a party consisting of 1 officer of the 2nd Gordons and 22 men were escort to a train which was derailed and attacked. The officer and 9 men were killed and the remainder wounded. The following telegrams speak for themselves:—

RESIDENCY, PRETORIA, "5.35 pm, 10th August 1901.

To OC 2nd Gordon Highlanders, Pietersburg.

I have to-day cabled following to his Majesty the King, begins: 'As Colonel-in-Chief of the Gordon Highlanders your Majesty might be pleased to know that Commandant De Villiers, who was present and has just surrendered, informed me that at the attack on the train on 4th July at Naboomspruit the guard of Gordon Highlanders under Lieutenant Best, who was killed, behaved with utmost gallantry. After the train had been captured by 150 Boers, the last four men, though completely surrounded, and with no cover, continued to fire until three were killed, the fourth wounded. On the Boers asking survivor the reason why they had not surrendered, he replied, "Why, man, we are the Gordon Highlanders".

The King's reply, received 12th August:— "Very pleased to hear of the bravery of the Gordon Highlanders. Proud to be their Colonel-in-Chief".

For gallantry on the occasion of another train being derailed on the Pietersburg railway on 10th August 1901, 1 officer, 1 non-commissioned officer, and 1 man gained mention in Lord Kitchener's despatch. As to mentions in the final despatches of Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, reference is made to what has been said under the 1st Battalion.

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(6441 Records)

 Surname   Forename/inits   Regimental no   Rank   Notes 
AbbottW1st Battalion
Source: QSA and KSA medal rolls
AbercrombyR O1st Battalion
Source: QSA and KSA medal rolls
AbernathyJ1st Battalion
Source: QSA and KSA medal rolls
AbernethyJ225PrivateSlightly wounded. Doornkop, 29 May 1900
1st Battalion.
Source: South African Field Force Casualty Roll
AbernethyJ1st Battalion
Source: QSA and KSA medal rolls
AdamJ1st Battalion
Source: QSA and KSA medal rolls
AdamW S2nd Battalion
Source: QSA and KSA medal rolls
AdamsA P2nd Battalion. Volunteer Service Company
Source: QSA and KSA medal rolls
AdamsJ1st Battalion
Source: QSA and KSA medal rolls
AdamsJ2nd Battalion
Source: QSA and KSA medal rolls
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by Virginia Silvester.

Family background

Robert and Sydney Cockman were two of the younger sons of Abraham Cockman, headmaster of the boys' National School in Grantham. Robert was born early in 1872, and Sydney on 12 March 1875. They grew up in the schoolhouse, with their parents and – initially – six older brothers and sisters. The three bedroomed house would have been crowded, but gradually emptied out. The oldest son, George, left home in 1873 at the age of fourteen to become an apprentice in the Merchant Navy; he went on to become a senior captain with P&O. The oldest daughter, Emma, went away to teacher training college in London less than a year after Sydney was born, and later was headmistress of her own school before marrying. The other two girls both died in their early teens. The second son, Frank, seven years older than Robert, became a clerk, while the third son, Charles, followed George into the Merchant Navy. After Sydney, there were two more children – Bertram, born in July 1879, and Harry, born in August 1881 and died in May 1883. All the boys probably attended their father's school.

On 24 February 1891, Sydney enlisted in the 2nd Battalion of the East Kent Regiment (The Buffs), under the name Frederick Cockman. He correctly gave his place of birth as Grantham, but claimed to be 18 years old, when in fact he was only 15. He said he was a printer's assistant, and signed up for 7 years. The 1891 Census found him in the barracks in Canterbury. Meanwhile only two brothers were left at home in Grantham – Robert, who was a pupil teacher, and Bertram, who was still at school.

Abraham Cockman died suddenly on 6 December 1891, and whatever Sydney may or may not have told his family about what he was doing, he is recorded as attending the funeral in Grantham on 10 December. Abraham's widow moved out of the schoolhouse and into another house in Grantham, with her two sons. But on 6 April 1892, she too died. In the space of 4 months, aged only 17, Sydney had lost both parents, and the family home had been broken up.

Joining the Gordon Highlanders

On 8 August 1892, Sydney alias Frederick Cockman went absent without leave from East Kent Regiment, and was concluded to have deserted. The following day, in London, he enlisted again, this time asking to be assigned to the Gordon Highlanders. To avoid the risk of discovery as a deserter, he assumed a false identity; for the period of his service in the Gordon Highlanders, he became Duncan Archibald Douglas, a printer, born in Glasgow and aged 18 years and 4 months (only a year out, this time). Whether the recruiting sergeant who took his details believed that he was Scottish, or his assurances that he had not previously served in the Army, can only be imagined. Asked to nominate his next of kin, he gave Robert's name as his cousin, and said he had a brother Frank (no surname) in Liverpool. Frank had married in Grantham the previous year and was now living in Liverpool, where his two daughters were later born. By 12 August, private Sydney alias Duncan Douglas had joined the Gordon Highlanders at their depot in Aberdeen, as number 4418.

Although Robert's attestation papers have not been found, almost certainly he joined the Gordon Highlanders a few days before Sydney; his regimental number was 4406, and Sydney stated that Robert was a Gordon Highlander when he nominated him as next of kin on 9 August. Family tradition tells that Robert was an Army schoolmaster, and this is confirmed in some official records. But it is not clear whether he was a schoolmaster from the time he joined the Army or became one later. In civilian life, he would have gone from being a pupil teacher to attend teacher training college and qualify as a schoolmaster. In the Army, there had been a Normal School which provided equivalent training, but this had closed in 1887. Training of Army schoolmasters, who were required to teach both soldiers (in evening classes) and soldiers' children, now appeared to be limited to study and teaching practice at the Army's schools in Chelsea or Aldershot. Although there was a Corps of Army Schoolmasters, individual schoolmasters were part of the establishment of the regiment to which they belonged. They were given the rank of an NCO – usually sergeant. As Robert began as a private, he was probably not a schoolmaster at first. Although Robert had no need to change his identity, he did adopt the second name Bertram – his younger brother's name.

On home service with the Gordons: 1892 to 1899

In August 1892, the 1st Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders was overseas, while the 2nd Battalion was in Ireland. By February 1893, the muster books record that Robert and Sydney had joined the 2nd Battalion in Dublin, serving as privates in D company. The fiction that they were cousins must have been difficult to maintain! They were still based together in Dublin on 1 August 1893, although Sydney was in hospital and Robert was temporarily at Curragh Camp. By 1 May 1894, the 2nd Battalion was split between Dublin and Curragh. Sydney, still in D company, was at Curragh, while Robert, who had been promoted to Lance Corporal, was in Dublin with B company.

On 9 June 1894, the 2nd Battalion embarked at Dublin on the HMS Tyne to return to Scotland, arriving three days later in Glasgow, where they occupied Maryhill Barracks. Sydney was appointed Lance Corporal on 19 June. In the muster for 1 November 1894, both Robert and Sydney were still Lance Corporals in the 2nd Battalion in Glasgow, Robert still in B company, and actually away in Aldershot, and Sydney now in C company and on furlough. It was perhaps during his time off in Glasgow that Sydney met a local girl, Helen (or Nellie) Dempster Paul. He reverted to private on 18 February 1895.

In 1896, the 2nd Battalion moved to Aldershot. Sydney went with them, as a private in C company. The muster of 1 June 1897 shows Sydney absent on a pass. Perhaps he was preparing for his marriage to Nellie Paul, which took place in Poplar Register Office on 25 June. Sydney married under his (almost) correct name, as Sydney Douglas Cockman. In December 1897, Sydney was still respectively in Aldershot.

When the 2nd Battalion moved to Aldershot, Robert appears to have transferred to the depot in Aberdeen. There, by 1 May 1897 he had been promoted to Corporal, and by August 1897 he was a Sergeant, when he was reported as taking part in a swimming gala. Robert had also been getting to know a local girl. On 4 March 1898, he married Isabella (Bella) Beattie Emslie at her home in Aberdeen. Robert was now a sergeant, living in Castle Hill Barracks in Aberdeen, where their daughter Harriet Isabella was born two weeks later. About the same time, Sydney and Nellie's first child Annie was born.

The 2nd Battalion remained at Aldershot until 6 September 1898, when they left to embark at Southampton for India. Sydney must have left the 2nd Battalion at this point, as his records clearly show he did not go to India. However, Robert did go to India, though not until after early October 1898, when he was reported in the "Aberdeen Weekly Journal" as one of the organisers and MCs of "the first quadrille party of the season" at Castle Hill Barracks, held in a decorated gymnasium. His son Robert Bertram was born on 11 July 1899. As this birth took place at Bella's parents' home and was notified by Bella, Robert had probably left by then. Bella and the baby – perhaps Harriet as well – must then have travelled to join him at Umballa Camp in India, an established military cantonment where the 2nd Battalion had settled. Baby Robert died there of diarrhoea on 23 November 1899.

Meanwhile Sydney and Nellie had a second child, Sydney Douglas, born in Glasgow on 4 August 1899. A few days later, Sydney transferred to the Army reserve, and became a commissionaire.

The Boer War: 1899 to 1902

But war was looming, and neither brother was destined to remain on the same course. By 1 September 1899, the 2nd Battalion was preparing to travel to South Africa. The bulk of the Battalion sailed from Bombay on 27 September, arriving in Durban a couple of weeks later. A further contingent left India on 8 December, arriving on 21 December. Given the medal clasps which Robert was awarded for his involvement in the Boer War, he probably left India with the main contingent – before the death of his baby son, and probably only shortly after Bella's arrival. It must have been very hard for her, alone in a foreign country.

Life was hard also for the 2nd Battalion. As soon as they landed in Durban, they travelled north by train to Ladysmith. On 21 October, the Gordon Highlanders and other troops based in Ladysmith took the train NE to a few miles short of the station at Elandslaagte, in support of attack on isolated group of Boers. The battle of Elandslaagte took place in the middle of a thunderstorm, and the kilted Gordons played significant part in securing British victory, with an old style Scottish charge and helped by their experience in India. But the Battalion suffered heavy casualties; 50% of the 263 officers and men who took part in the battle were killed or injured.

After the battle, the British withdrew hastily to Ladysmith, where they were pinned down in the infamous siege from 2 November 1899-28 Feb 1900. Although Robert, as a schoolmaster, is unlikely to have taken part in the battle, he must have been trapped in Ladysmith during the siege. A diary kept by another Army schoolmaster during the siege provides a clear account of his life there. With the school where he had taught closed, and few children left in the town, this man was engaged in clerical duties at Army HQ, dodging enemy bombardments and adapting to the increasing shortages of food. The British troops besieged in Ladysmith suffered heavily from disease, although the Gordon Highlanders were less affected than other regiments. For months, little news or letters passed in to or out of the town, so Robert probably did not know of his son's death until Ladysmith was relieved.

Meanwhile, in Aberdeen Sydney had rejoined the colours on 9 October 1899, and joined up with the 1st Battalion, who had been in Edinburgh since they returned from India in December 1898. By the end of the month, they too were preparing for South Africa. The Battalion received an enthusiastic send off from the people of Edinburgh when they left for Liverpool, where they embarked on 9 November. They reached Cape Town on 30 November. On 11 December, they were involved in the Battle of Magersfontein, and lost 9 killed and 21 wounded. The Battalion then had a hard march to Paardeburg, SE of Kimberley. For 9 days, the Gordons lay and waited in intense heat. Eventually the weather broke, and in torrential rain on 27 February 1900, the Battalion was in action in support of the Canadian advance. British and allied forces were victorious at the Battle of Paardeburg, but at the expense of heavy losses - 1,270 casualties out of 15,000 troops. The Battle of Driefontein followed on 10 March 1900, further along the Modder River. As the Gordons moved further north and east as the British pushed the Boer forces further into the interior, the 1st Battalion was involved in the Battle of Johannesburg on 31 May 1900, while the 2nd Battalion took part in the Battle of Laing's Nek, from 2-9 June 1900 (near Newcastle, N of Ladysmith near the border between Natal and Transvaal), and the Battle of Belfast, on 26-27 Aug 1900 (N of Newcastle, E of Johannesburg).

The bulk of the fighting was now over for the two brothers. Sydney would have received bad news from home. His wife and children had moved to live with her mother in Glasgow while he was away, and on 18 May 1900 baby Sydney died there, from gastritis and convulsions. Nellie, notifying the death, betrayed her confusion about the names she was supposed to be using; she gave the baby's name as Sydney Douglas Cockman, his father's name as Duncan Douglas Cockman alias Douglas, and her name as Helen Dempster Cockman. By the time of the 1901 Census, she had the story straight again, giving her name as Nellie Douglas and her daughter as Annie Douglas.

By 1 April 1901, the 1st Battalion was in Pietermaritzburg, where Sydney alias Private DA Douglas was awarded the Queen's Africa Medal with clasps for Paardeberg, Dreifontein, Johannesburg and Cape Colony. The peace agreement was signed on 31 May 1902, but the 1st Battalion remained in South Africa until the end. Sydney returned to Scotland on 19 August 1902, and was awarded the King's Africa Medal with clasps for SA 1901 and 1902 in November.

In October 1900, the 2nd Battalion moved to Pretoria, and then in May 1901 to Pietersburg. It was here, on 15 July, that Sergeant R Cockman was awarded the Queen's Africa Medal with clasps for Belfast, Elandslaagte, Defence of Ladysmith and Laing's Nek. The two Battalions had met up at Belfast, but as Sydney was not awarded the clasp for that action, perhaps he did not meet Robert there. The 2nd Battalion remained around Pretoria until January 1902, shortly before peace was declared, when they returned to India, where they were to remain until 1912.

After the war: Robert 1902 to 1907

It is not known whether Robert travelled to India with the 2nd Battalion. What we do know is that his wife Bella, at home in Aberdeen, had been unfaithful to him. She gave birth on 8 June 1902 to a son, George McGhee Copland. The baby's father was Thomas Copland, a postman, who had actually been one of the witnesses at Robert and Bella's marriage. Moreover, Bella asserted that she had "had no personal communication with [Robert] since they ceased to reside together four years ago". This is surely somewhat economical with the truth, as their son had been born less than three years earlier.

Baby George lived only a few months, dying on 28 October 1902, having been sick for most of his short life with, among other things, congenital syphilis – with which he must have been infected before birth by Bella – and marasmus, a malnutrition disease. Thomas does not seem to have formed a permanent relationship with Bella, and he went on to marry someone else.

Wherever Robert was, the news of his wife's affair probably reached him, if only through contacts at the Regiment's depot in Aberdeen. What followed is uncertain. Family tradition has it that Robert emigrated to Canada. There is however no evidence that he went to Canada, nor indeed that he emigrated anywhere else. But a corporal (lance sergeant) Robert Cockman, described as Scottish (as he had been in earlier returns), serving in the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment in Gibraltar, died there on 24 January 1907 – of a self inflicted gunshot wound – aged 27 years and 4 months. Robert the former Gordon Highlander was actually 35 years' old at this time, but the register of soldiers' effects records that his widow's name was Bella, so it is almost certain that this was the same person. This register also gave Robert's birthplace as Aberdeen, his date of enlistment as 27 August 1902 (perhaps this was the date he joined the Border Regiment), and his trade on enlistment as a clerk. The 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment had arrived in Gibraltar in September 1906, having previously been based in Plymouth after returning from the Boer War. Perhaps Robert had changed regiments in South Africa, unwilling to go back to India. Opportunities for army schoolmasters on home service were limited in the 20th century, as most army schools were overseas.

If indeed our Robert did kill himself in 1907, some of the pressures on him are not hard to find. His marriage had broken up, and he may well have lost contact with his daughter. He had been left without parents when he was just 20, and contact with most of his family may well have been disrupted by army life. The brother to whom he was closest, Sydney, was about to emigrate to Canada. A 1904 report on army schools had found that schoolmasters were working excessive hours with inadequate assistance in the face of increasing demand from soldiers seeking to improve their education.

Robert Cockman's effects when he died in Gibraltar were sent to the faithless Bella. In due course she remarried; and their daughter Harriet married in August 1921, she stated that her father Robert was deceased.

Family and Canada: Sydney 1902 to 1915

In Scotland, Sydney transferred again to the Army reserve on 23 April 1903, and was discharged finally, after completion of his 12 years' service, on 8 August 1904. Sydney thereafter resumed his true identity, discarding his alias of Duncan Archibald Douglas for good. He took up the occupation of waiter. On 22 December 1904, a son, Charles Henry, was born to Sydney and Nellie, at Kingennie in Monifieth, Forfarshire (now Angus).

In 1907, Sydney emigrated to Canada, sailing from Glasgow to Halifax. Two years later, Nellie/Helen joined him, with their children Annie/Nancy and Charles; they arrived in Quebec/Montreal on 17 May 1909. Another son, Douglas, was born in Canada about 1911/12. Sydney continued to work as a waiter, and by 1915 the family was settled in St John, Winnipeg. Sydney joined the local militia, 79th Cameron Highlanders of Canada.

First World War

Canada had raised troops to support the British forces from the outset of the First World War, and the Cameron Highlanders began recruiting in Winnipeg for service overseas in the winter of 1915/16, as part of an initiative to increase the numbers to 500,000. On 26 October 1915, at the age of 40, Sydney enlisted for the third time, in 179th Battalion Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force (Cameron Highlanders of Canada). This time, he used his real name and personal details. Like his nephews in England, he may have been hoping to get quickly to the front, but in fact it was almost a year before he left Canada for Europe. In the meantime, he had been promoted to corporal on 1 February 1916, and to sergeant on 10 March.

Sydney arrived in England in October 1916, and spent a year there, in the Shorncliffe area of Kent where the Canadian troops were mainly based. Like most other Canadian units, his Battalion was quickly absorbed into a reserve battalion and lost its identity. At the end of October 1917, he finally arrived in France, having reverted to private just before his posting to the front. By 17 November he had joined his unit in the 16th Battalion Canadian Infantry.

During January 1918, Sydney first reported symptoms of difficulty breathing, especially if he did any heavy lifting. This was diagnosed as impaired heart function, caused by service conditions. Then on 26 February 1918, he was wounded at St Pierre, when a shell fragment destroyed his left eye, and he received a shrapnel wound to the head. He spent the next two months in hospitals in France and England, eventually being fitted with an artificial eye. He was finally sent back to Canada at the end of September and was discharged in Winnipeg on 9 December, as medically unfit for further war service, due to both the loss of his eye and heart problems. It was judged that his heart should get better in a year or so, and he should be able to resume his occupation as a waiter.

Nellie visited Scotland at least once, with Douglas 1921. The family's last known address was in Nelson, British Columbia, in 1924. Sydney died at Kaslo, British Columbia, on 11 January 1933, aged 60.


 

Officers of the 1st and 2nd Btns
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Parade of the 1st btn
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Sergeant Major of the 2nd btn
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HM's visit
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NCOs
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Uniform
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Monro, C G
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Murray, J G D
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Great War DSO group to Lt Col P D Stewart, 3rd Dragoon Guards late Gordon Highlanders. Spink July 2013
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Wingate, A S
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Wingate, A S
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Campbell, J R M
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Campbell, R Mc O
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Dalrymple Hay, J D
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Denne, H W D
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Dick Cunyngham, W H
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Downman, G T F
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Downman, G T F
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Parent Category: Units
Category: Imperial units
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