Forgotten Voices of Empire:The Battle of Belmont 1899

The Battle of Belmont is the name of an engagement of the Second Boer War on 23 November 1899, where the British under Lord Methuen assaulted a Boer position on Belmont kopje.

Methuen’s three brigades were on their way to raise the Boer siege of Kimberley. A Boer force of about 2,000 men had entrenched on the range of Belmont kopje to delay their advance. Methuen sent the Guards Brigade on a night march to outflank the Boers, but due to faulty maps the Grenadier Guards found themselves in front of the Boer position instead.

The Guards, the 9th Brigade and the Naval Brigade assaulted the Boers over open ground, suffering about 200 casualties. Before the British came to use their bayonets, the Boers retreated by pony and re-formed in another entrenched position at Graspan, where the pattern was repeated with the British suffering another 197 casualties: one sailor reporting that “at 200 yards we fixed bayonets, and we just saw their heels; they didn’t wait when they heard the rattle”.

On the 25th of November 1899, a Corporal Res of the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards wrote a letter home to his parents detailing the events of the battle and his resulting wounds.

Field Hospital, Orange River

Saturday November 25th 1899

My Dear Mother – I thought I should have had a letter from home by this time, but I suppose you are all too busy, or you may have written and it has not reached here yet. No doubt you will be looking at the address of this letter. well to make a long story short, I have been rather seriously wounded in three places. I will tell you how I got these.

On the day of the 22nd we were encamped at Chalk Farm, which we reached on the 21st. Our scouts went out to reconnoitre and found the enemy had taken up a very good position about 8 miles away.

We got this news about two O’clock in the afternoon. At five O’clock we were ready to go. We marched as close to the position as we dared (Which I suppose was about 4 miles) reaching the camping ground shortly after dusk. We had tea there and waited in silence and darkness until 1.30 in the morning, when we got the order to advance.

Everything was as silent as death as we crept along. Bye and bye we came to Belmont Station. We could then see in the distance the long range of low hills where the enemy were supposed to be.Map of Belmont

We crept closer and closer in the dark, still silence. We were getting very close now to the hills, and my company, No 1 (right half company) got the order to open out and advance. We got closer and closer on hands and knees: still the enemy never saw us until we got within 200 yards from the bottom of the hill and then one single shot rang out. 

Our chaps (there were half of No 1 Company about 60) dropped on their stomachs and fixed bayonets, then advanced without a waver up the hill. The bullets were flying round us like hail and the carnage was awful. It was a fearful position for any troops to take or attempt to take without first being shelled by artillery, No 1 was simply wiped out. 

We had to advance across the open fully 300 yards , and then climb the hill, while the Boers were on the top keeping up a galling fire all the time. Of course the remainder of the Brigade came up and drove the Boers away; still the loss everywhere was very heavy. No 1 Company lost 10 killed and about 20 wounded  out of 120, while the total for the battalion was 26 killed and 80 wounded.

Such was the battle, which I suppose will be called Belmont as it was quite close to Belmont Railway Station. Our general complimented us the next day. He said there never had been anything like it fought since Inkerman. I had just got to the top of the hill when I first shot through the left wrist. I managed to stop it bleeding, and ran on and was just going across an open place when I got shot through the shoulder blade and in a second got another right across the forehead, it was a near shave I tell you, however I shall be all right shortly and hope to be at the last fight, which I think will be Pretoria. 

3rd Batt Grenidier Guards 1899

3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards 1899

At any rate I have won a medal and one bar already. Charlie will no doubt remember Corporal Pattison, whom he met at Pirbright, he was shot dead through the brain. Then our adjutant came in front of No 1 and shouted ‘ Come on lads, let them have it’. Just then we saw a Boer with a white flag. The adjutant went to see what was the matter, and he was immediately shot the adjutant dead. We captured the Boer and brought him to camp where he was bayoneted at “Retreat” same day. 

They are the roughest and most cowardly set of ruffians you would wish to see anywhere. I don’t feel like writing anymore just now, but I don’t wish you to think I am dangerously wounded because the doctor thinks I shall be all right in a week or so. If this is the case I shall have to fight another battle or two.

We are advancing on Kimberley. We expect another big fight at the Modder River today and one or two more before we reach Kimberley. Then we go to Pretoria. Must close now, love to all at home. Don’t fret about my wounds, as the doctors have extracted the bullets- Your affectionate Son

Bob. 

Write by return and address to 3rd Grenadier Guards, 1st Brigade South African Field Force. Excuse this awful scrawl, but a wounded man can’t do much, can he? and the right arm is my only whole part. 

 Belfast Evening Telegraph 20th December 1899 Page 3.

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Churchill: Man of Empire

Today is Empire day! Every year on the 24th of May throughout the Empire the achievements of this Little Island in the Atlantic Ocean were celebrated. In honour of this day I thought I would do a quick post on one of the Empires favourite sons, Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.

One of the things I have noticed as I have researched for this blog is the amount of times you come across Churchill in the Empire. He seems to appear in pictures from the Sudan, India and South Africa and this is all before his greatest moment in World war 2.

He was born on the 30th November 1874 into one of the grandest families in Britain and was the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. A true son of the empire he born at the height of Imperial reach.

Churchill as a child.

Churchill as a child.

Destined for a career in the army he struggled to pass the entrance exam for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. It took him three attempts and he only qualified for the cavalry and not the Infantry. Sandhurst was the making of him and in 1894 he passed out 2oth out of 130.

Upon passing out he joined the 4th Hussars as lowly Cornet (2nd Lieutenant). With his pay at £400 pa but by his own reckoning needing £900 pa to live up to the standards expected he turned to war correspondence to supplement his earning.

young winston

A young Winston in the Uniform of the 4th Hussars

Churchill was determined to see action where ever and whenever he could.

In 1895 he sailed to Cuba to see the Spanish fight Cuban guerrillas and he came under fire on his 21st birthday. It was while in Cuba that he first acquired the taste  for Havana cigars. Something that would acquire a fame of its own during WW2.

Churchill in India 1897

Churchill in polo kit. India 1897

In late 1896, Churchill transferrred to Bombay in India. A keen Polo player he soon established himself one of the best players in India. As always his aim was to see action, this time it was in Malakand in the North West Frontier to campaign against the Pashtun tribes.

Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence. The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherent in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour. That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword — the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men — stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism. The love of plunder, always a characteristic of hill tribes, is fostered by the spectacle of opulence and luxury which, to their eyes, the cities and plains of the south display. A code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.

Churchill’s description of the Tribes on the NWF

India had a profound effect on Churchill and he saw India as the jewel in the Crown and essential to the Empire.

His racism towards the Indians would effect is outlook on dealing with The Indian independence moment and he had a deep dislike for Gandhi. His actions during the Bengal famine where ineffectual if not down right negligent but he always believed that The British Empire was a force for good in India and that by bring civilization to millions of ordinary Indians it would improve their lives.

Churchill in the Sudan.

Churchill in the Sudan.

In 1898 Churchill was sent to the Egypt where he explored the sites of Cairo and the Pyramids before joining the 21st Lancers in the Sudan. During this time he was commanded by General Herbert Kitchener and Douglas Haig, both of whom he would work with during WW1.

At the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898 he would take part in what is know as the last meaningful charge by British Cavalry. His books on the Conquest of the Sudan became best sellers and he resigned from the army in 1899.

It is the habit of the boa constrictor to besmear the body of his victim with a foul slime before he devours it; and there are many people in England, and perhaps elsewhere, who seem to be unable to contemplate military operations for clear political objects, unless they can cajole themselves into the belief that their enemy are utterly and hopelessly vile. To this end the Dervishes, from the Mahdi and the Khalifa downwards, have been loaded with every variety of abuse and charged with all conceivable crimes. This may be very comforting to philanthropic persons at home; but when an army in the field becomes imbued with the idea that the enemy are vermin who cumber the earth, instances of barbarity may easily be the outcome. This unmeasured condemnation is moreover as unjust as it is dangerous and unnecessary.

From Churchill’s book Red River

Churchill as a prisoner of War. South Africa.

Churchill as a prisoner of War. South Africa.

In 1899 as the Boer War broke out in South Africa, Churchill obtained a commission to act as a war correspondent for the Morning Post. He was soon in the thick of the action. He was in a scouting expedition on an armoured train when it was ambushed. Captured and despite being a correspondent he was sent to Pretoria as a POW.

His escape and return to British lines turned him into a minor celebrity and this helped in securing his election to Parliament in the 1900 elections.

What is the true and original root of Dutch aversion to British rule? It is the abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man … the Kaffir is to be declared the brother of the European, to be constituted his legal equal, to be armed with political rights

Churchill on the Boers

ww1 ch

Churchill in Command of the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteert. 1916

Churchill had a mixed war. As first lord of the Admiralty his proposal for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign lead to his resignation and after leaving the cabinet he travelled to the Western Front where he was given command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers.

Correspondence with his wife shows that his intent in taking up active service was to rehabilitate his reputation, but this was balanced by the serious risk of being killed. As a commander he continued to exhibit the reckless daring which had been a hallmark of all his military actions, although he disapproved strongly of the mass slaughter.

I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment — and yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it.

Winston writing to a friend 1916

The Inter war years were some of the toughest Churchill would have to face. As an outspoken critic of disarmament and appeasement of Hitler’s Germany  he became something of a laughing stock. With the coming of war and Chamberlain’s resignation the country clamored for one man.

Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 and immediately galvanized the country.

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Winston’s speech to the House of Commons 13th May 1940

The second World War has been called Winston’s greatest hour so it is somewhat ironic that in winning the war he destroyed the Empire he adored.

Winston Churchill 1940

Winston Churchill 1940

Winston Churchill died on the 24th January 1965. He died known as the saviour of the free world and even in 2001 was voted the Greatest Britain of all time but in my eyes he will always be a son of the Empire.