Wandering Through South Africa – Part 3

Well Day 5 started early as most days seemed to do.  The world here shuts down at dusk because everybody seems scared of the night.  They might have good reason for it.  Our first words of advice after getting the South African welcome was do not go out at night.  A quizzical why was mooted.  Because you have to be aware was the answer.  Which makes me think that unless you are toting an AK47 and are team handed, you are a virtual prisoner for half the year, but more of my queries on the country later.

Breakfast at 6.30am, bags once more packed and meet with Liz Spiret for 8.00am, again she is our guide today, Ladysmith is definitely her patch.  She took us off to the Ladysmith museum, an excellent piece of work in an historical building.  It was the grain store during the siege and the townsfolk queued every day for their rations.  It told the story of the siege very well with some great models explaining what was happening whilst the Boers were in the supremacy.  With lots of people dying of disease because of the filthy water in the town, the Boers let them move their hospital out to fresher cleaner pastures some miles out of town, it saved a lot of lives and ensured the good name of the Boers lived on in history.

We were shunted outside for press photographs and interviews, a look round the artillery parked in the forecourt of the museum and then away to the Soldiers Church, All Saints, the Anglican Church on Murchison Street.  A splendid little church reminiscent of the small Anglican Cathedral, St Georges, in Ypres.  Around the walls of the side altars on marble slabs set into the walls are the names of every soldier who had lost his life in the Relief of Ladysmith, under the Connaught Rangers there were the names of 66 soldiers.  With no piper this time Mullingar carried the flag up the main aisle, Des read a few words from a book, Mullingar lowered the flag, I laid a wreath by the names of the soldiers, the colonel said his Irish prayers, a minutes silence and another moving ceremony was over.  If we carried out this ceremony ten times a day , seven days a week, I would still get tearful.  Everybody plays out their part so magnificently and Flash Harry gets a chance of some emotional pictorials.

It was time for lunch and a date had been fixed at our Piper, Dougie McMaster’s house, a few miles out of town.  Dougie’s house was a splendid example of a 120 year old working farmhouse house, it reminded me somewhat of my grandfather’s farmhouse in Denton.  Dougie’s wonderful wife had put on a superb spread of South African food and she made sure Mullingar was topped with whisky after all his efforts with our standard.  We ate and talked, the atmosphere was so relaxed, I could have stayed there all day but things had to be done.  However before we left we spent an hour in Dougie’s private museum.  He told us that a lot of the artefacts on show had been gathered by a local historian, Edmund Llewellyn (Wally) Hyde, immediately after the battles of Colenso, Vaalkrans and Hart’s Hill.  In fact Wally had helped bury the dead in the loop at Colenso.  As an old man he had befriended Dougie and asked him to look after his legacy and Dougie has done this magnificently.  Previously when looking at my old friend Peter Dunne’s life I had presumptiously thought he had died of enteric and Dougie had the original Medical Officers Report Book which listed the death of every British army soldier who died in chronological order during the Relief of Ladysmith, an unbelievably important historical document and there was Peter’s death recorded on the morning of April 10th 1900 of enteric and signed by the doctor officiating.

Dougie told us a story about Wally Hyde after the battle in the loop at Colenso as he was burying the dead.  He was right at the end of the loop as far as any soldier had got, on the banks of the Tugela River he found this dead Connaught Rangers.  The body was in the first stages of decomposition, the man still had his pith helmet on, so he took it off and the soldier’s ginger hair came away with the helmet.  The soldier’s dog tag showed him to be 1190 Cpl W Doherty, they buried him and put up a simple cross but he kept the helmet with the hair attached.  When he got home for whatever reason, he scraped off the hair and put it in a jar and there it remained for over 20 years sitting on his shelf.  He then got wind of a party of Irish relatives in Ladysmith wanting to know about the conditions at the loop.  Wally the historian was contacted and he showed them the battlefield and its tragedy and then he learnt these travellers were the relations of Corporal Doherty.  He took them home and presented them with a relic of their relation.  In history every little thing is important.

We left Dougie and drove up onto the Platrand, this is a long hill overlooking Ladysmith and ownership was of high strategic importance, the besieged garrison owned it from the beginning but on the night of the 3rd January the Boers tried to take it and force the town to submit.  The hill was flat topped and about four kilometres long and about 120 metres above the town.  It had three defined zones, Caesar’s Camp at the eastern end occupied by the 1st Manchesters throughout the seige, Wagon Hill in the middle and Wagon Point at the east end.  The area was under the command of Col Ian Hamilton, who was later to be famed for his lack of success in Gallipoli in 1915.  About a 1000 Boer undercover of darkness attacked and quickly put paid to two companies of Manchester’s but a bayonet charge by the Gordons drove them off the hill.  Meanwhile after rallying again the Boers attacked Wagon point the following evening in force and were slowly gaining the edge when a critical bayonet charge by the Devonshire regiment finally threw the Boers off the hill.  Casualties were high with 18 British officers and 150 men killed and 18 officers and 224 men wounded with the Boers losing 68 men killed and 135 men wounded.The action was awarded with five VCs, Lt Digby-Jones of the Royal Engineers, Lt Masterson of the 1st Devonshires, Trooper Albrecht of the Imperial Light Horse and Pte J Pitts and Pte R Scott of the 1st Manchesters.  The day was saved in some brutal hand to hand fighting and Ladysmith lived on.

Up on the hill that afternoon we could see how important it was , we were looking out over Ladysmith and any force with artillery could have brought the town to its knees in a matter of hours.  Everything seemed as it was 114 years ago, gun emplacements almost as good as new, trenches and especially graves scattered about the hill.  Cattle and antelope grazed at will untroubled by history.

Our last stop before we left Ladysmith was to visit the Town Cemetery.  This spot was most important to me I was visiting Peter Dunne’s grave.  There are only two Connaught Rangers buried here both dying of enteric while in hospital at Hyde’s Farm, 1005 Pte T Heal;ey who died on 6th April 1900 and 3058 Pte Peter Dunne who died on 10th April.  I could not help thinking of Peter’s great granddaughter, Vivian Roche, now in Saudi Arabia, who had found Peter’s campaign medals only a few days before we set off and who donated them to our museum in Boyle.  She would have been so proud to see us five stood at Peter’s grave.  It is a funny moment when you stand at the grave of a soldier you have researched, you are one of the family, I had spoken to Peter often and shared a cup of tea with his wife Jane and played with his two daughters, Molly and Annie.  I thought I knew them well and I looked at his gravestone and realised he had died 114 years and six months ago.  If I shed one tear on this trip I must have shed a hundred.

We left Ladysmith, it was a town I liked and journeyed on to Dundee, town born on coal and named after the town in Scotland when a past resident and then a farmer by the name of Smith found the stuff by the thousand ton in his back garden.  Day 5 ended for us at Lennox Farm just outside Dundee where we were going to put our feet up for a few days.  We had a great meal and washed it down with some cheap wine we found.  I was staying in the honeymoon suite but unfortunately without the honey.

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