Boer War Meant Bully & Biscuits All The Time (5 April 1974)
When you’ve shouted “Rule Britannia,”
When you’ve sung “God Save the Queen,”
When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth,
Will you kindly drop a shilling
In my little tambourine
For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?
That was the top pop song of the Boer War, the 75th anniversary of which falls later this year.
I was not born until six years after the Boer War ended. So I cannot write about it with any more personal knowledge than a lad of 23 can write about the Second World War today. However, in 1949, when the Boer War’s 50th anniversary occurred, the Gazette went in search of that war’s local survivors.
We found eight of them in the town at that time, though I have since heard of one or two more who came with the ex-London development. And from those eight I gained a better idea of the life and feelings of the ordinary soldier in that war than you can gain from any amount of books and films about that or any other war.
The eight were: Mr. Albert Elliott, of Eaton Avenue, and Mr. David Fulcher, of Napier Street, who served with the Grenadier Guards; Mr. E.E. Callaway, of the Bull Hotel, with the Scots Guards; Mr. L.E. Clifton, of Napier Street, with the Coldstream Guards; Mr. Richard Golding, of High Street, with the 11th Hussars; Mr. Alfred Lord, of Denmark Street, who was first an artilleryman and then a mounted infantryman; Mr. Ernest Knight, of Tavistock Street, with the Oxford Light Infantry; and Mr. George Campbell, of Brooklands Road, with the Dorset Regiment.
I gathered that the three-and-a half years’ campaign was far from being a picnic. The Boers fought the war to a great extent by means of mounted infantry employing hit-and-run tactics.
They called these formations “Commandos” and so introduced that word into our language most memorably.
Our footsloggers especially had a hard time of it, marching 20 miles a day here and there in heavy rain or sweltering heat across the vast expanses of the Cape, Transvaal and Orange Free State, fighting indecisive battles at the end, and sometimes existing on one-and-a-half biscuits a day.
Mr. Callaway, who enlisted from the Bucks Police and was police superintendent at Bletchley when he retired in 1938, kept a diary of his experiences. His entries for 1900 include:
February 20: Arrived Klip Drift 10.00 a.m. after 22 miles. We have been two days on 1½ biscuits, no coats or blankets and raining like hell.
February 21: Half ration of rum.
February 22: Coats and blankets turn up, but still on 1½ biscuits a day.
February 23: Still raining, no shelter or even a dry rag.
February 24: Still raining. Us starving.
February 25: Another wet night, still starving.
February 27: Very heavy firing (at Paardeburg). Cronje is getting it today. Later adjutant gave out that he (Cronje) had surrendered with 4,000, most of them like ourselves, in rags.
March 1: Still starving, all quiet.
March 2: Large number of wounded pass on their way to Modder River. Still raining and starving.
March 7: Stiff fight. Boers fled. Poplar Grove.
March 10: Marched 21 miles, fought battle of Drienfontein, big losses on both sides.
March 11: Fought Abraham’s Kraal battle, 12 miles today.
By September 22 he was recording: Heat cruel, bottom off right boot. Next day: Hungry, mouth and lips black with thirst and scorched by sun. And next day: Altogether we were 26 hours without water, heat very trying, boots all worn through and feet bleeding, clothes worn out, shirts rotten, awful rush for water (in Portugese(sic) territory).
And on Christmas Day: Celebrated with a pint of warm beer at dusk. Tried to buy some water at 2s 6d a pint, but failed (Merry Christmas!).
Mr. Callaway came back with the Queen Victoria Medal and six battle clasps.
Mr. Lord, though speaking purely from memory, was equally graphic about the Boer War.
“Now that really was a war,” he told me. “Bully and biscuits all the time, and if you did happen now and then to get a bit of duff, you could throw it at the wall and as likely dent the wall as dent the duff.”
Born in Bletchley and apprenticed to Mr. Wheeler, the blacksmith, he enlisted as a regular at the outbreak of the war.
“I was at the relief of Mafeking. We had a rough time. Sandstorms were blowing so hard that the old 15-pounders were blown right over.”
Later he shod the brigadier’s horse and for the rest of the war was a sergeant farrier. He came back to England “with £5 for the Queen’s Medal and 30-bob for the King, and then back to Bletchley where from being a mounted infantryman I became a coal carter.”
But he was still on the reserve at the outbreak of the First World War and was “soon in uniform again and falling back from Mons. However, I got through that war with only one bullet added to that I got from the Boers.”
He then worked 23 years for Bletchley Council until 1942. “Then I was wounded again, but this time it was an engine that fell on me at the sewage works, cut off my right foot and damaged my other leg.”
Very well known in Bletchley during his later years for his work for the local Hospital Fund (which preceded the National Health Service) and as a church warden at St. Martin’s, was the oldest of the old soldiers in date of service, Mr. Campbell. He joined the army in 1891 – pay 6d a day – and was recalled to the Boer War to fight at the relief of Ladysmith, Spion Kop, Tegula Heights and Laing’s Nek.
Mr. Elliott had the distinction of serving not only in the Boer War, but also in the First World War in the railway section of the Royal Engineers and in the Second World War as a Home Guardsman.
I have no space to give details of the other veterans. Suffice it to say that the Boer War added not only “Commando” to the language but also “maffiking” and the Liverpool “Kop,” and that clearly those words mean nothing like fun and games for the men who fought in it.