Sunday, 13 February 2011

retreat from dundee part 11 the war in south africa

Owing to the Boers having posted their 15-centimetre gun on the Impati for the purpose of shelling the camp and town, the troops and inhabitants removed to a position some three miles south of Dundee village. The movement was fraught with many discomforts. Rain fell in torrents, making the roads a mass of slush and enveloping everything in a thick mist, while provisions, which had been hastily gathered together, were scarce. On the following day, Sunday, an attempt was made to return to camp, but the Boer firing continued so active that the project had to be abandoned. Thereupon, on Sunday night the whole column, having first loaded four days' supplies from their old camp and set there lighted candles sufficient to cause such an illumination as would suggest to the Boers an idea of occupation, quietly stole away. No one exactly knew their destination. At nine of the clock the Army Service Corps waggons moved to the camp, were loaded, and by midnight commenced rumbling along in the damp obscurity. The advance column, after passing through Dundee, where it was joined by transport and rearguard, proceeded along the Helpmakaar road on the way to Ladysmith.MAJOR-GENERAL SIR W. PENN SYMONS, K.C.B. Photo by R. Stanley & Co., London.


Photo by R. Stanley    below 15 pounder

On Monday afternoon the first halt was called, but the rest was of short duration, for at ten the column was again plodding along through the miry roads in hourly dread lest the whole scheme should be spoilt, and the Boers suddenly arrest the course of the two-mile-long column.

the alymer piece above on the left is a great set for this period
And they had indeed good reason for alarm. They were forced to plod through a narrow pass in the Biggarsberg range of mountains, so narrow indeed that a hundred Boers might have effectually barred their way. Here, through this perilous black cylinder of the hills, they marched at dead of night. It took them between the hours of half-past eleven till three, stumbling and squelching in the mire, and knowing that should the enemy appear, should they but shoot one of the oxen of the leading waggon of the convoy, and thus block the cramped defile, all chance of getting safely through to Ladysmith would be at an end. This was by no means a happy reflection to fill men's minds in the dripping, almost palpable, darkness of the night, and the resolute spirit of the gallant fellows who unmurmuringly stowed away all personal wretchedness and stuck manfully to their grim duty is for ever to be marvelled at and admired. Fortunately the Dutchmen, "slim" as they were, had not counted on the possibility of this march being executed at all, still less of its being executed in pitch darkness. They were caught napping, and the party, who had left kit, provisions (except for the four days), and everything behind them, who were now drenched to the skin in the only clothes they possessed, at last reached Sunday River in safety.

Here they eagerly awaited an escort of the 5th Lancers, which had been detached by Sir George White from Ladysmith to meet them. These, to the great joy of the worn-out travellers, appeared on Wednesday afternoon. On that evening the column again started off for a last long wearisome tramp, the men, who had not been out of their clothes for a week, being now ready to drop from sleeplessness and exhaustion. But valiantly they held on. Not a word, not a grumble. All had confidence in General Yule and his officers, who shared with the men every hardship and every fatigue; each realised his individual duty to make the very best of a very bad job, and pluckily kept heart till the last moment. Torrents of rain fell, making the night into one vast immensity of slough and pool, but the stumbling, straining left, right, left, right, of the retreating men continued ceaselessly through the weary hours. On Thursday morning, the 26th, to their intense relief, they found themselves at last in the long-looked-for camp at Ladysmith.

The excitement of arrival was almost too much for the exhausted, fainting troops, but the cheers that went up from a thousand throats brought light to their sleep-starved eyes and warmth to their chilled frames. There was rest at last—rest and safety, food and warm covering, though of a more practical than artistic kind. The Devons—who had just come grandly through the fight at Elandslaagte and looted the Boer camp of innumerable saleable odds and ends—out of their newly-gained wealth "stood treat." In the joy of their hearts each of the men subscribed sixpence, and the gallant Dublin Fusiliers, the heroes of Glencoe, who, all unwashed and unshorn, now looked like chimney-sweeps rather than the warriors they were, were invited to a fine "square meal." It is difficult to imagine the condition of those battered braves after their week of hardship, fighting, and privation, and sticklers for etiquette would have been shocked at the manners and customs enforced by warlike conditions. One who dined with the Dundee column gave the following graphic description of the luxurious repast:—

"To begin with, there was no sort of furniture either in the messroom or the anteroom. If you wanted to sit down, you did so on the floor. We each got hold of a large tin mug, and dipped it into a large tin saucepan of soup and drank it, spoons not existing. A large lump of salt was passed round, and every one broke off a piece with his fingers. Next you clawed hold of a piece of bread and a chunk of tongue, and gnawed first one and then the other—knives and forks there were none. This finished the dinner. Add to this two or three tallow-candles stuck on a cocoa tin, and the fact that none of the officers had shaved, or had had their clothes off for a week, and had walked some forty-five miles through rivers and mud, and you will have some idea of how the officers' mess of one of the smartest of Her Majesty's foot regiments do for themselves in time of war. Not a murmur or complaint was to be heard."

Their state must certainly have been pitiable, for it will be remembered that on the retirement from Dundee rations for four days only were loaded, and provisions for two months, besides all officers' and men's kit and hospital equipment, were left behind.

And, sad to say, so also were the wounded. It was necessary for their future well-being to desert them. The men who had so gloriously led to victory now found themselves stranded and in a strange position—the vanquishers at the mercy of the vanquished! Most melancholy of all must have been the plight of those unhappy sufferers when they first learnt that their comrades were marching farther and farther away, and that they, in all their helplessness, must be left lonely—unloved, and perhaps untended—in charge of the enemy. One dares not think of the agonies of those sad souls—the nation's invalids—bereft of kindly words and kindred smiles; one cannot linger without a sense of emasculating weakness on the sad side-picture of battle that, in its dumb wretchedness, seems so much more paralysing than the active horror of facing shot and shell in company with glorious comrades in arms. Let us hope there was some one to whisper to them, to persuade them that all was for the best; that the safety of their sick selves and their sound mates depended on this retreat, this wondrous retreat which, when the tale of the war in its entirety shall be told, will shine like a dazzling light among records whose brilliancy in the history of British achievements cannot be excelled. Perhaps, too, they had faith to inspire them with the certainty that all that they had suffered in that dark hour for their country and for the weal of their fellows, would be remembered to their glory in the good times to come.

While the retreat was going forward Glencoe's gallant hero was breathing his last. After hopelessly lingering for three days, General Sir W. Penn Symons passed away. He expired in the hands of the enemy at Dundee hospital on Monday the 23rd of October. The next day he was quietly buried with profound signs of mourning.


By the death of Major-General Sir William Penn Symons, the British army lost a brilliant and distinguished soldier, and a man of great valour and courage. He came of a Cornish family, the founder of which was a Norman knight who came over with William the Conqueror. The eldest son of the late William Symons, Recorder of Saltash, he was born in 1843, and in 1863 joined the South Wales Borderers—the old 24th Regiment. He became lieutenant in 1866, captain in 1878, major in 1881, lieutenant-colonel in 1886, and colonel in 1887.

His first experience of active service was in 1877, when the Borderers took the field against the Galekas. In the Zulu War of 1879 he served with distinction, but was not present at the battle of Isandlwana, being away from his regiment on special duty. In 1885 he served as Deputy-Assistant-Adjutant and Quarter-Master-General, organising and commanding the Mounted Infantry in the Burmese Expedition. Being honourably mentioned in dispatches for his services with the Chin Field Force, he received a brevet-colonelcy. In 1889-90 he was given a brigade in the Chin-Lusha Expedition, was again mentioned in despatches, made a C.B., and received the thanks of the Government of India. He commanded a brigade of the Waziristan Field Force in 1894-95 with like distinction, but he will best be remembered in connection with the campaign on the North-West Frontier of India in 1897-98, after which he was made a K.C.B. In 1898 he gave up hisgappointment in India and took command of the British troops in Natal.

He was one of the best shots in the army, his military hobby in fact being musketry, though he was also a great authority on the subject of mounted infantry. He was a keen sportsman, an excellent linguist. He was highly respected by all who knew him. As an evidence of how he was regarded by his brother officers, one may quote from the telegram which was sent from Sir G. White to the War Office on the morrow of the battle of Glencoe. The communication said: "The important success is due to his great courage, fine generalship, and gallant example, and the confidence he gave to the troops under him."

Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill's remarks about him, in a letter to the Morning Post, show how fully he was appreciated for his social as well as for his military qualities.

"So Sir Penn Symons is killed! Well, no one would have laid down his life more gladly in such a cause. Twenty years ago the merest chance saved him from the massacre at Isandhlwana, and Death promoted him in an afternoon from subaltern to senior captain. Thenceforward his rise was rapid. He commanded the First Division of the Tirah Expeditionary Force among the mountains with prudent skill. His brigades had no misfortunes; his rearguards came safely into camp. In the spring of 1898, when the army lay around Fort Jumrood, looking forward to a fresh campaign, I used often to meet him. Every one talked of Symons, of his energy, of his jokes, of his enthusiasm. It was Symons who had built a racecourse on the stony plain; who had organised the Jumrood Spring Meeting; who won the principal event himself, to the delight of the private soldiers, with whom he was intensely popular; who, moreover, was to be first and foremost if the war with the tribes broke out again; and who was entrusted with much of the negotiations with their jirgas. Dinner with Symons in the mud tower of Jumrood Fort was an experience. The memory of many tales of sport and war remains. At the end the General would drink the old Peninsular toasts: 'Our Men,' 'Our Women,' 'Our Religions,' 'Our Swords,' 'Ourselves,' 'Sweethearts and Wives,' and 'Absent Friends'—one for every night in the week. The night I dined it was 'Our Men.' May the State in her necessities find others like him!"TOY SOLDIERS BRITISH BOER WAR LANCASHIRE LOADING 54MM

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