Brothers go to war

Stories handed down from generation to generation can be both important family histories and frustratingly light on detail.

My father told me the family story: there were three brothers who enlisted to fight for King and Country in the First World War. The brothers had to lie about their ages to enlist. After the war one brother emigrated to Canada, another to South Africa, and the third to Australia. The brothers never met again, but kept in regular contact through letters.

The brother who settled in Australia was my great-grandfather, Andrew “Andy” Stewart Duncan. Any detail about his brothers was lost. I wanted to learn more about this story.

Birth and census records on the ScotlandsPeople website soon found the Duncan family of 12 Duke Street, Newton on Ayr, Scotland.

John Duncan and Elizabeth Stewart had ten children, one of whom died in infancy. Including my great-grandfather there were four brothers, not three: John, Andrew, Anthony and Hugh. They were born in 1879, 1882, 1884 and 1893 respectively.

Which three brothers enlisted? 

Army records identified that John, Andrew and Anthony had enlisted.

  • John joined the British Army Reserve in January 1916, transferred to the 5th Army Reserve Scottish Rifles and later the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.
  • Andrew had emigrated to Australia in 1912. He enlisted in the 10th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Force in August 1914.
  • Anthony had emigrated to Canada in 1910. He attested for the 74th Battalion, Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in July 1915.

I found service records and Medal Rolls Index Cards for soldiers named Hugh Duncan and Hugh Stewart Duncan but could not connect any of them with my great-grand uncle. I was unable to determine whether Hugh had joined up or not.

Who lied about their age?

A common part of the narrative of the First World War is that underage lads added a few years to their age, so as not to miss out on going to war.

John, Andrew and Anthony were all in their 30s when they enlisted. And yet the family story was that the brothers had lied about their age to enlist. Where had that come from?

  • John had misrepresented his age, dropping it from 36 to 35 years
  • Andrew had lied about his age – but in 1899, at the age of 17, when he enlisted for the Boer War.

Who emigrated to South Africa?

Anthony had sailed for Canada.  Andrew had made Australia home. John survived the war and was back in Scotland to register the death of his father in 1922, and his mother in 1927. The only one unaccounted for was Hugh Stewart Duncan. There was no trace of him emigrating, or returning home.

There was no Duncan emigration to South Africa after the First World War.  Memories of Andrew’s Boer War travels had become mixed with later stories.

What happened to Hugh Stewart Duncan?

The launch of Scottish soldiers’ wills on the ScotlandsPeople website sent me looking again for confirmation of whether Hugh had enlisted. My query returned three possible wills. The first will I viewed had no connection to the Duncans in Newton on Ayr. The second will made me sit upright in my chair. It read,

In the event of my death I give the whole of my property and effects to my father Mr. John Duncan 12 Duke St. Ayr.

13/5/15

Pte. Hugh Duncan

No. 7029

1/5 R.S.F.

Hugh had joined the 1/5th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. On 7 June 1915 he landed at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula, where he was critically wounded.

Hugh died on 23 June 1915 of wounds received in action. He was buried at Lancashire Landing cemetery not far from Cape Helles.

In searching for the truth behind the story of three brothers in the First World War I uncovered a forgotten brother. Hugh, the baby brother, died and was buried far from home.

Lest we forget.

 

Featured image: Lancashire Landing Cemetery, Cape Helles. Photo from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website

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Meanwhile on the home front

While Andy was overseas Jane Duncan was a dutiful wife. She took an interest in the newspaper reports of the Gallipoli campaign and later the Western Front. She clipped newspaper articles for Andy to read when he returned home.

Elizabeth Jane Duncan nee Stewart c. 1918
Elizabeth Jane Duncan nee Stewart c. 1918. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Jane wrote regularly to the Department of Defence, advising frequent changes of address and seeking updates on Andy’s situation. She also wrote to the newspapers in Broken Hill, Adelaide and Melbourne to share any news from the front.

On 27 May 1915 Jane wrote

I suppose you know that Sergt. Duncan enlisted at Broken Hill and after his departure I sold our home & came to Beaufort to be with my mother till such times as Mr. Duncan returns

Jane Duncan's letter to the Department of Defence, 27 May 1915.  B2455/3525935 © Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2013.
Jane Duncan’s letter to the Department of Defence, 27 May 1915.
B2455/3525935
© Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2013.

To be with my mother. Not her father? Family memories suggest that Jane and her father, John Stewart, only got along in small doses. Jane’s relationship was with her mother.

It wasn’t long until Jane’s free spirit saw her leave Beaufort again, though she returned regularly to her parents’ home. Jane’s letters to the Department of Defence record her travels.

• In August 1916 she was in Broken Hill “for a month or two”, staying with friends.

• On 24 October 1916 she changed her address to Beaufort, “as I have left Broken Hill & have returned to Victoria”.

• In April 1917 Jane wrote, “I am in Sydney for a few months” and gave her address as 146 Flinders Street, Moore Park, Darlinghurst.

• By 31 January 1918 Jane was lodging at the Dunolly Coffee Palace and planning to stay “for some considerable time”.

• On 5 April 1918 Jane was back in Beaufort, but by mid-May she was residing at 11 Victoria Road, Malvern with her aunt, Elizabeth Anne Downes White (nee Stewart). Jane stayed in Malvern until news came of Andy’s repatriation to England in January 1919, then she returned to Beaufort for a month or so.

• By 11 March 1918 she was in Bung Bong, near Maryborough. It is possible that Jane’s travels to Dunolly and Bung Bong were associated with family, as the Whites and the Stewarts were mining families with connections to the central Victorian goldfields.

• The Riponshire Advocate of 29 June 1918 reported that Jane was in Banyena.

• On 19 April 1919 Jane wrote to advise that she would be leaving Bung Bong for Beaufort and requested any further news of Andy be sent to the Stewart home.

 

Sources

NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. National Archives of Australia.

1918 ‘FOR THE EMPIRE.’Riponshire Advocate (Vic. : 1914 – 1918), 29 June, p. 2.

Wounded, then back to Anzac Cove

Crammed full with wounded from the Gallipoli landing, the S.S. Ionian made for 17th General Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. If Andy was lucky, he would have been dosed with morphine for the journey, but he may not have received decent medical treatment until he reached Egypt.

P01016.002
The wharf at Alexandria, showing ambulances waiting to take from the steamship Ionian men wounded in the Gallipoli landing. Australian War Memorial collection P01016.002

Andy was admitted to hospital on 1 May. His condition was recorded as “dangerously ill”, but Jane Duncan received the standard notification

Sergeant Duncan is not reported seriously wounded. In the absence of further reports Egypt advises all wounded to be progressing satisfactorily.

Jane probably provided The Adelaide Chronicle with its 29 May article

SERGEANT A. S. DUNCAN. Chronicle (Adelaide, SA) 29 May 1915, p. 45
SERGEANT A. S. DUNCAN. (1915, May 29), Adelaide Chronicle, p. 45. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Andy’s hospital stay gave him some respite from the dysentry and enteric fever that swept through the men at Gallipoli. He was treated at Alexandria for 37 days, then spent another 12 days at Tanta Government Hospital.

On 17 June 1915 Andy was discharged from hospital, carrying in his back the Turkish shrapnel that was to torment him in later years. He was judged fit for duty, and rejoined his unit at Gallipoli on 8 July 1915.

At the start of the great August offensive Andy was promoted to Company Sergeant Major. During the battle for Lone Pine Andy’s battalion was in support at Silt Spur, holding the existing lines.

Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey, 1915-08-17. A soldier from the 10th Infantry Battalion in a tunnel trench at Silt Spur. Shafts of light beam into the tunnel from firing positions (right), while on the same side bombing tunnels lead off from the main corridor. Australian War Memorial collection P02321.026
Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey, 1915-08-17. A soldier from the 10th Infantry Battalion in a tunnel trench at Silt Spur. Shafts of light beam into the tunnel from firing positions (right), while on the same side bombing tunnels lead off from the main corridor.
Australian War Memorial collection P02321.026

September’s cooler weather turned wintry by the end of the month. On 23 September Andy was reprimanded for neglect of duty at Anzac. Details of the reprimand are not recorded, but it appears to have come at a time of relative quiet. During lulls in the fighting some men took the opportunity to move about the trenches more freely, and some received reprimands for not staying below the trench parapet.  One officer had been reprimanded earlier for setting a bad example for his men. Perhaps Andy’s reprimand was of a similar nature.

November brought violent storms and heavy seas. On 21 November, in bitterly cold weather, the 10th Battalion left Gallipoli, rotated out of the line for a rest at Mudros on Lemnos island.  What Andy did not know was that he was leaving the peninsula for the last time.

The History of the 10th Battalion records that on arrival at Mudros

the blizzard which caused so many casualties on Gallipoli came upon them. That blizzard “which in four days by flood and frost caused 200 deaths, 10,000 unfit for further service, and 30,000 sickened and made old”.

During this severe weather Andy was reprimanded a second time for neglect of duty at Serpi rest camp.

While at Mudros Andy would have learned that Gallipoli was to be evacuated. How did he feel on hearing the news? There must have been relief, certainly. But he would not have the chance to visit the graves of the fallen and say a final farewell. Did he feel that he was letting his mates down by evacuating after all they had fought for?

Composite view of Mudros Harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos near the Turkish coast and tent lines at Serpi Camp. The camp at the time was occupied by the 3rd Brigade, after the evacuation of Gallipoli. Australian War Memorial collection A02170C & A02170D
Composite view of Mudros Harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos near the Turkish coast and tent lines at Serpi Camp. The camp at the time was occupied by the 3rd Brigade, after the evacuation of Gallipoli.
Australian War Memorial collection A02170C & A02170D

Andy spent Christmas day 1915 on Lemnos. The next day he sailed for Egypt, disembarking at Alexandria on 29 December and entraining for Tel-el-Kebir Camp.

Sources

NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. National Archives of Australia.

Kearney, R. 2005. Silent Voices: the story of the 10th Battalion AIF in Australia, Egypt, Gallipoli, France and Belgium during the Great War 1914-1918. New Holland Publishers, Sydney.

Limb, A. 1919. History of the 10th Battalion A.I.F. 1st ed. London; Melbourne: Cassell and Co.

Walsh, M. 1997. War Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick E. Forrest MC.

Bean, C.E.W. 2007. Bean’s Gallipoli: The diaries of Australia’s official war correspondent. Edited and annotated by Kevin Fewster 3rd ed. Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Egypt

On 6 December 1914 the 10th battalion disembarked at Alexandria and entrained for Cairo.

The men arrived in Cairo around midnight and were given a mug of cocoa, a bread roll and cheese. Then they boarded trams for Mena camp.

Troops entraining at Alexandria. Australian War Memorial collection PS0470
Troops entraining at Alexandria.
Australian War Memorial collection PS0470

As the trams neared the terminus, the men could see the pyramids in the moonlight, wrapped in light fog.

The battalion marched into camp only to find no tents, blankets or bedding. Exhausted from the day’s activities, the men fell asleep on the sand. The desert night was freezing, and Andy had only his greatcoat to keep him warm.

A second night was spent sleeping in the open – this time huddled under waterproof sheets in the rain.The following day the tents arrived.

The NCOs would have been kept busy establishing discipline and routine. Andy would have had to deal with men more interested in climbing the pyramids or seeking out the delights of Cairo than in military routine.

Mena-Camp-SRG-435_1_281
The camps of the 9th and 10th Battalions of the AIF, located 10 miles from Cairo. Two pyramids can be seen in the background. Handwritten note on back: ‘This is a photo of part of the old camp at Mena. It shows the road between our lines (on the left) and the 9th on the right. I picked it up when in Cairo last.’. State Library of South Australia SRG 435/1/281

For the next three months the battalion underwent vigorous training at Mena camp. A typical day started with Reveille at 6am then breakfast at 7am. After breakfast the men marched for about four miles across the desert to the drill ground. There they would rest for ten minutes before drilling until 12 noon.

Lunch was a small bread roll and tinned sardines.

Troops of the 10th Battalion taking a rest break during training in the desert.  Australian War Memorial collection A02135
Troops of the 10th Battalion taking a rest break during training in the desert.
Australian War Memorial collection A02135

In the afternoon the men drilled from 1pm until 4pm. Then they headed back to camp. They wore full kit, marching and skirmishing their way through the desert.By the time Andy arrived in camp his clothes were soaked through with sweat.

After dinner the men would wash and change clothes, then drill from 7:30pm until 10 or 11pm.

At the beginning of January 1915 the battalion structure changed from 8 companies to 4. Andy’s G Company was disbanded and he was now in D Company. About this time the ‘Australian Expeditionary Force’ was renamed the ‘Australian Imperial Force’.

By February night drills had lengthened. Soldier Archie Barwick wrote of practising at night “taking up positions, digging trenches, attacking, scouting, silent marches, bayonet attacks, rapid movements”.

On 2 March 1915 Andy left with the battalion on the S.S. Ionian for the island of Lemnos. Here they would make their final preparations for a landing at the Dardanelles.

The 10th Battalion camp lines at Mena 'packed up ready to move' on the eve of departure for the Gallipoli Peninsula. The remains of the Officers mess is in the right foreground. Australian War Memorial collection A02141
The 10th Battalion camp lines at Mena ‘packed up ready to move’ on the eve of departure for the Gallipoli Peninsula. The remains of the Officers mess is in the right foreground.
Australian War Memorial collection A02141

A boy’s own adventure in India

I wrote earlier of the South Lancashire Regiment’s time in India, starting with their garrison duty at Jubbulpore, Madhya Pradesh province.

While Andy Duncan studied for his sergeant’s exam and improved his woodworking skills, others found more unusual ways to pass the time.

A 1907 newspaper story caught my eye with its mention of the South Lancashires in Jubbulpore. It gives a colourful description of the landscape my great-grandfather would have known.

WHAT THEY CALL A STROLL. (1907, June 8), Sydney Evening News, p. 12. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
WHAT THEY CALL A STROLL. (1907, June 8), Sydney Evening News, p. 12. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

In India Lance-Corporal Atkinson recently walked 118 miles in 47 hours, thus breaking  a record made by one of the South Lancs. Regiment by 6 hours 35 minutes. The following is an account of his experiences as related (says ‘Health and Strength’) by himself: —

When my regiment relieved the South Lancs. Regiment at Jubbulpore [Jabalpur], the first thing I heard about was a record left by a private of that regiment, viz., walking to Sangor [Sagar] by way of the Black Forest, unaccompanied and unarmed, with the exception of a hunting-knife. I decided to attempt to beat this record.

I started on my journey at 5 p.m. on February 27, 1907, carrying 1lb muscatels, 1lb almonds, 12 cakes of chocolate, 30 biscuits, and a hunting-knife. I decided to get water wherever possible. At 5.15 p.m. on the 28th I was sixty miles on my journey. The native police stopped me, and I showed them my pass. They could understand the pass, but I could not make them understand why I should walk instead of ride. Thinking there must be something wrong, they arrested me, and confined me in the gaol. They treated me well, and I was quite a curiosity to the women and children, who seemed to think my manner of eating and washing were peculiar. Next morning at 5.45 the police awakened me, and at 10 a.m. I set out with one native as escort, and walked fifteen miles to a railway station. After I was handed over to the Civil police, and had explained my case to the chief inspector, the escort seemed very much upset at his mistake. The chief inspector promised to help me.

I set out again on March 5, 1907, at 5 a.m., taking passes in Hindu and Hurdu. Arriving at Singrampoor [Singrampur], 47 miles from Jubbulpore, I was advised by the khansarma (or proprietor) of the Dak Bungalow to stop, as otherwise I should reach the Black Forest by night. The danger of this forest lies in the panthers, which lie on the branches of trees and drop down on their victim as he, or it, passes underneath. To ensure safety the native mail carriers travel in pairs, and carry flaming torches and spears, on which are fixed a number of bells. After an hour’s rest I pushed on, deciding to take my chance. After walking a few miles I heard the report of a rifle, followed by a terrific roaring. Not knowing what it was, I climbed a tree. On the noise ceasing I cautiously descended, and was relieved to find that the noise was caused by large monkeys, of which there was innumerable quantities. About 10 miles in the forest I noticed a movement on a tree branch overhanging the path. Fortunately I stopped, and immediately a panther dropped down and disappeared in the jungle on the opposite side. Wild boars, buck, nilgai, etc., were very numerous. I have heard of the stillness of forests, but on this occasion all the animals seemed to unite their voices in one grand chorus, the whistling of beetles mingling with the howling of jackals and the shrieking of hyenas.

I arrived at a village in a small clearing, called Nehta, at 10.30 p.m., and a kindly native lending me half his scanty rags I slept until 1.30 a.m. I earned his undying gratitude by giving him four annas (4d). He did not appear to have possessed such a large sum before, and salaamed most humbly. Leaving the village, the forest resumed its natural aspect. I arrived at Damoh, half-way to my destination, at 5.30 a.m.

Resting here for two hours, I resumed my journey, and after travelling 22 miles I arrived at a river, and was delighted to have a swim. Crossing the river, I arrived at the village of Garakhota [Garhakota]. Close to here the King (when Prince of Wales) shot his first tiger. This is the end of the forest, and I was very pleased to leave it behind me. Walking as rapidly as possible in the awful heat, I was glad when the sun set and night closed in. About 13 miles from the end of my journey I came to a Dak Bungalow, and some soldiers on shooting pass insisted on my going in. After half-an hour’s rest I continued my journey, and reached Sangor at 2 a.m. My shoulders were blistered by the sun, and my feet in an awful condition through my march of 118 miles. With these exceptions I was in perfect condition, and suffered no ill effects.

When viewed through a 21st century lens this ripping yarn gives us a glimpse of the mores of British colonial rule.

It is a ‘boy’s own adventure’, taking place in the romantic world of the British Raj. India is a playground for the British. The wild beasts and jungles of the subcontinent are reduced to an exotic backdrop for a story that illustrates the resilience and determination of the British character.

Lance-Corporal Atkinson’s descriptions of the Indian people he encounters emphasise their ‘other-ness’: they don’t think like the soldier; they don’t understand his motives or behaviour.

It would be easy to go further and judge the colonial-era attitudes that permeate Atkinson’s tale. I prefer to focus on understanding the times and places in which my great-grandfather lived.

Featured image: Detail from map of Central Provinces and Berar. Jubbulpore is top centre, with Damoh and Saugor to the northwest. Source: The Imperial Gazetteer of India 1909. [ONLINE] Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

Peacetime service 1902-1911

Andy spent 1902 serving in the United Kingdom, where he was promoted to Lance Corporal and then Corporal. He achieved his 3rd class certificate of education (required for promotion to Corporal) in November 1902.

On 22 December 1902 Andy was part of a draft posted to India, where the 1st Battalion was on garrison duty.

Andy’s service record in The British National Archives (WO97 series) gives only the briefest outline of his time in India. Hart’s Annual Army List confirms the regiment’s movements, while details of soldiers’ daily routine in the heat and dust can be found in Richard Holmes’ book, Sahib: the British soldier in India 1750-1914.

The trip to India by steamer took about 6 weeks. Andy arrived in Calcutta [Kolkata] at the beginning of February 1902.

Andy joined the 1st Battalion at Jubbulpore [Jabalpur] in Bengal. He had arrived at the coolest time of the year and the weather into March would have been quite pleasant; cold, foggy mornings giving way to warm afternoons. Once summer arrived, however, temperatures shot north of 40 degrees, and work in the heat of the day became impossible. In Sahib one soldier describes the weather in May as “hot as human nature can well support”.  The monsoon season brought some relief, but temperatures remained around 30 degrees until winter arrived in November.

As a new arrival, Andy was probably baited with tales of the poisonous snakes and man-eating tigers that lay in wait for the freshman soldier. There was some truth in these stories, as death by snake-bite was quite common in Jubbulpore. Tigers were less common, but did appear from time to time and caused great excitement. A tiger had been shot on the Jubbulpore golf links a few years earlier.

"Wild Beasts in India." Australian Town and Country Journal (1900, November 17), p.38. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
“Wild Beasts in India.” Australian Town and Country Journal (1900, November 17), p.38. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The nature of garrison duty in India meant that soldiers often had time on their hands. This gave Andy the opportunity to continue his education and work towards attaining his sergeant’s stripes. He studied writing and dictation, mathematics including proportions, interest, fractions and averages, and all forms of regimental accounting.

While only officers were required to study the Hindi language, Andy almost certainly learned enough colloquial language to speak pidgin Anglo-Indian with battalion servants and locals.

When not on duty men would occupy themselves by drinking, gambling at cards, playing backgammon or chess, and reading. Crafts were a popular activity. Perhaps it was in India that Andy learned or developed his woodworking skills to pass the time. A parquetry drinks tray and cribbage box crafted by Andy in later years have been handed down in the family.

Andy passed his class for rank of sergeant on 21 September 1903, and was awarded his second-class certificate of education on 23 March 1904.

In May 1906 Andy was stationed further east in Mhow, on transport duties. Then in 1907 the battalion was posted to Ranikhet Cantonment in northeast India. The move between garrisons probably consisted of a long, slow train journey of several days bookended by formal marches. The heat meant that the battalion would move at night and camp during the day.  Sahib describes how the rest camps were alive with activity and noise:

The constant jabbering of the natives, and the roaring of the camels, together with elephants and buffaloes, reminds one of the striking contrast between India and peaceful England … The women of Bengal beat all I ever saw, for they will fight, and keep up such a chatter that they may be heard above the din of the Camp.

Ranikhet was a forested hill station in sight of the western Himalayas. Andy would have welcomed the cool summers after the heat of Bengal and the central plains, but the heavy snow and near-zero temperatures in December would have required some adjustment.

Ranikhet Cantonment, Uttarakhand
Ranikhet Cantonment, Uttarakhand. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Andy was promoted to Sergeant on 28 January 1907. He then sought and was granted permission to extend his service to complete 12 years with the colours.

The battalion remained at Ranikhet into 1908, then moved to the Lahore Cantonment (now in Pakistan).

The battalion’s activities in northern India were set against a background of increasing civil and religious unrest across the country. British newspapers reported concerns of seditious acts in the Punjab, political agitation in Bengal and Calcutta, and “the promotion of mischief of the gravest and most formidable kind” in Lahore. From May 1907 British troops were on patrol in Lahore, prepared to act swiftly and firmly against any challenge to British colonial rule. The South Lancashires would remain in the north of the country until the beginning of the First World War.

In 1909 Andy was posted to England for 6 months before rejoining the battalion. In 1910 he completed a musketry course at Changla Gali.

Napier-Barracks
The 1911 British Census records Sergeant Andrew Duncan stationed at Napier Barracks in Karachi. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

On 2 December 1911, having completed 12 years with the regiment, Andy left the British Army. He made his way to Australia, sailing from Calcutta.

Passenger List from SS Janus. VPRS 7667 Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports). Public Records Office Victoria.
No longer Sergeant. Mr. A. Duncan sailed on the SS Janus from Calcutta to Australia in December 1911. VPRS 7667 Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports). Public Records Office Victoria.

Sources

Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Class: RG14; Piece: 34989; Page: 2. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

British Army Service Records. The National Archives UK. WO96/684/108.

Hart’s Annual Army List. 1902 – 1911. Vol. 63 – 72 . London: John Murray

Holmes, R. 2006. Sahib: The British Soldier in India 1750-1914. United Kingdom: Harper Perennial.

VPRS 7667 Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports). Public Records Office Victoria.

Featured image: British Infantry line, Mhow Cantonment, India. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Boer War service 1899-1902

The Transvaal-War Inevitable
THE TRANSVAAL. (1899, October 2). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 5. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

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.

British infantry crossing the Vaal River
British infantry crossing the Vaal River, South Africa, c.1900. Australian War Memorial collection P00295.303
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.

Block House near De Jagers Drift, Transvaal
Block house on the road between De Jagers Drift and Vryheid, Transvaal, occupied by the South Lancashire Regiment. A uniformed dummy holding a flag stands guard. Australian War Memorial collection PO1220.003
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.

Sources

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