Andy joined the British Army in September 1899 as talk of war between Britain and the Boers reached fever pitch. The family story is that Andy lied about his age to enlist, and his attestation papers record his age as 18 years 1 month when really he was only 17. He was described as 5 feet 4¾ inches tall, with fresh complexion, blue eyes, brown hair.
Andy served in the South Lancashire Regiment from 26 September 1899 to 2 December 1911. He volunteered first for the South Lancashire Militia and soon transferred to the 1st Battalion, nicknamed the “Fighting Fortieth”. His military records indicate that he served in the 1st Battalion in South Africa and later in India.
Andy was not in the first South Lancashire contingent to sail for South Africa. On 30 November 1899 Andy would have joined the wildly enthusiastic crowds farewelling the South Lancashires as they marched out of the barracks. Andy was probably disappointed not to be going himself. Men were desperate not to miss out on an adventure that many thought would be over by Christmas.
Private Duncan finally departed for South Africa in early June 1900. It is likely that he sailed from Southampton on 8 June on board the newly-built RMS Tagus.
John Downham’s book, Red Roses on the Veldt: Lancashire Regiments in the Boer War, 1899-1902 helps to expand upon the terse entries in Andy’s service record.
The voyage to South Africa would have been new and exciting for young Andy. Dolphins leapt and raced alongside the ship as it sailed south, the waters alight with phosphorescence at night.
On board, the daily routine included cleaning the ship, physical drills and rifle practice. Men passed their off-duty hours playing cards or holding impromptu smoking concerts, at which each man was expected to sing or recite verse. Perhaps Andy recited the poems of Robbie Burns, which he was known for in later years.
The ship reached Table Bay on 29 June. It was a period of relative quiet in South Africa: large, formal military operations were all but over, the capitals of the two Boer republics were under British control, and some British observers were predicting the end of the war. But the Boer guerilla campaign was just beginning.
Andy travelled north from Cape Town to join the regiment in the southern Transvaal, where they were tasked with securing rail and telegraph lines between Standerton and Volksrust. Their duties included digging trenches to protect the camps, manning isolated outposts along the railways, and patrolling the lines. They kept a close eye on Boer farms in the area and conducted searches for arms. When ammunition or weapons were found, orders were to confiscate farm stock and burn the farm. The Boer commandos were never far away; the soldiers had to remain vigilant and ready to fend off raids on the camp.
On 4 September 1900 the battalion marched south-east as part of the 11th (Lancashire) Brigade. It was a 90-mile march through Wakkerstroom to Utrecht and on to Vryheid. Andy would likely have escorted guns and equipment carriages pulled by slow-moving oxen.
The march was dusty and dirty. Men’s feet blistered and bled. The weight of their rifles bruised their shoulders. Tents or shelters were rare and there was little opportunity to wash off the accumulated mud, blood and sweat. At the end of each day Andy would have slept in the dirt, his greatcoat wrapped around him as protection against the bitterly cold night.
The 1st Battalion took up garrison duty at De Jager’s Drift on the Buffalo River on 10 November. Here Andy spent an uneventful two months, though not far away at Vryheid the Boers mounted a serious attack that killed 11 men. The South Lancashires left De Jager’s Drift in January 1901 to relieve the Vryheid garrison. The 3 day march saw several brushes with the enemy but no serious fighting.
On 14 January the Battalion reached Vryheid and entered the garrison on Lancaster Hill, a high rocky plateau on the northern outskirts of the town. Andy would spend the rest of his time in South Africa stationed here. Once defences were strengthened and the threat of attack had died down, Andy would have settled into a routine of parades and drills, work parties and outpost or sentry duty.
Despite Vryheid being relatively peaceful throughout 1901, the South African weather and the British army staple diet of ration biscuit and bully beef continued to take a toll on the regiment. Of the thirty-five deaths in the South Lancashires while Andy was stationed at Lancaster Hill, twenty-one of them were from illness or disease. Another two deaths were caused directly by the elements: one due to sunstroke and one due to a lightning strike (which also injured eight others).
Andy fell ill with enteric (typhoid) fever on 14 November 1901. His condition was first reported as “dangerously ill”, but by 30 November he was considered to be out of danger.
Andy was posted back to England 29 January 1902, before the final major battles of February – April. He had passed his initiation into military life. He was awarded the standard service medals for his time in South Africa: the Queen’s South Africa Medal with clasps for service in Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal, and the King’s South Africa Medal with two clasps for service in South Africa in 1901 and 1902.
Anglo Boer War website – Shipping records – June 1900. 2013. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.angloboerwar.com/other-information/86-shipping-records/1802-shipping-records-june-1900. [Accessed 19 April 2013].
British Army Service Records. The National Archives UK. WO96/684/108; WO97/4738/080.
Downham, J, 2000. Red Roses on the Veldt: Lancashire Regiments in the Boer War, 1899-1902. Lancaster, UK. Carnegie Publishing Ltd.
Roll of Honour – Ships – RMS Tagus. 2008. Roll of Honour – Ships – RMS Tagus. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Ships/RMSTagus.html. [Accessed 19 April 2013].
1900 ‘DRAFTS FOR THE FRONT’, Lincolnshire Echo (Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England) 8 June 1900, p.1
1900 ‘ITEMS OF INTEREST’, Gloucestershire Echo (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England) 8 June 1900, p.4
1900 ‘TRANSPORT ARRIVAL’, Morning Post (London, England) 30 June 1900, p.5
1901 ‘CASUALTY LIST’, Lancashire Evening Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) 18 November 1901, p.4
1901 ‘CASUALTY LIST’, Lancashire Evening Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) 4 December 1901, p.4
Featured image: RMS Tagus c.1910. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer