Trying their luck in South Africa
Letters from the Boer War

THE STONEWORK of the Hebden Bridge Council Offices is of a pleasant, mellow appearance, carrying the date of their opening, 1897, above the entrance. This date also marked a significant national event, Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, a celebration of unashamed pride in the British Empire.

On fine days, the rays of the late afternoon sun filter through the glass inner doors of the Council Offices and their glints and gleams are reflected in a fine brass plaque on the wall. Around its edges, the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancashire lay intertwined in a filigree pattern of leaves. Engraved on the plaque are the names of two local soldiers who fell in the South African War (1899-1902), one a member of the East Lancashire Regiment, the other a member of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Three other names are there, volunteers from the local St. John Ambulance Brigade who died in the same conflict.

For the best part of a century, generations of Hebden Bridge residents have passed along this cool and lofty corridor, engrossed in their day-to-day concerns of rents and rates, of bills and rebates. Few will have spared more than a glance at the plaque. And yet, this sad postscript to the noisy optimism of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was a pointer to the world to come — the strife torn twentieth century, with its lost legions of names on plaques and memorials right across the world.

It was in October 1899, just a century ago, that Boer horsemen from the independent republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State, resenting British interference in their affairs, moved across the veldt to attach the British possessions of Cape Colony and Natal in South Africa. The whys and wherefores perhaps do not matter now. The simple British patriotism of the day saw the matter in clearest black and white, the Queen's Empire was under threat; the Boers must be defeated.

The enthusiasm shown for the war in Hebden Bridge was, no doubt, reflected in towns and cities right across the country and, in particular, acclamation was reserved for 34 members of the Hebden Bridge branch of the St. John Ambulance Brigade who had volunteered for service in South Africa. They left in small groups throughout 1900, and on each occasion massive crowds assembled at the railway station, seven or eight thousand on the first occasion. The volunteers were sent off to rousing cheers and patriotic singing, accompanied by the local brass band. For these were not, after all, young men in search of glory on the battlefield. They were imbued by a spirit that was quite common at this time, but easily disregarded or forgotten now, a desire to serve humanity as part of a Christian ideal. It seemed inconceivable that anything could go amiss for them.

Letters from the men involved in the conflict were published regularly in the local press, including contributions from soldier Corporal E Carey and ambulanceman Private G H Pickles. They gave fascinating insights into the realities behind the headlines. The letters from soldiers are full of the concerns of “old sweats.” One mentions a near riot on board ship because beer for officers cost 6d per bottle whilst the charge for other ranks was 7d. Another mentions that the worst hardship of being under close siege by the Boers at Ladysmith was the absence of tobacco. He is reduced to smoking tea leaves!

Nevertheless, those at home who had expected a short and swift British victory over a bunch of Dutch farmers were soon disabused of this notion. Up to the end of 1899 the news was all of Boer victories, including one at Spion Kop that would be immortalised on more than one British football ground. The one published letter from Corporal Carey gives some idea of the climatic conditions that took such a heavy toll of the fighting men. Corporal Carey was an old soldier who had served in the East Lancashire Regiment in Ireland, Gibralter, India and Burma. To him, however, "this was the worst country I was ever in." He mentions the intense heat of a march to the Riat River during which 22 of the brigade died of heat stroke—"the hardest march I ever did in my life." From extreme heat the weather changed abruptly to heavy rain, and for three continuous days in February, Corporal Carey remained soaked to the skin. All this, and locusts too!

Corporal Carey makes little mention of the fighting but another local soldier, Private W Dawson, gives some idea of why the Boer War was to be such a bloody and protracted conflict. In a letter dated February 27th 1900, he speaks of the West Riding Regiment being "under shot and shell for 14 solid hours," with heavy losses. The tide of war turned against the Boers in the early months of 1900, but the conflict still had two years to run, along with a mounting casualty list. Corporal Ernest Carey was killed in heavy fighting at Karee Siding, 32 miles north of Bloemfontein, in Orange Free State, on March 29th 1900. He was the first Hebden Bridge loss. The final name on the plaque records another soldier, Private J H Greenwood, of the Yorkshire Light Infantry, killed in action at Nooitgedacht on December 13th 1900.

Of the three volunteer ambulance workers who are named on the plaque, Private George Herbert Pickles, was a prolific letter writer. In many ways George was the epitome of the type of young man who went out to South Africa with the St. John Ambulance Brigade. He was sober and earnest; had won essay prizes in his teens on such weighty topics as sanitation; had attended Oxford University Extension Lectures in a spirit of self-improvement. Above all, perhaps, his membership of Birchcliffe Baptist Church, in Hebden Bridge, along with associated organisations such as the Young People's Christian Endeavour, gave him the foundations for his ideal of public service.

George embarked on the steamship, 'Gaika,' in March 1900, along with other ambulance volunteers and many troops. His letters to his parents are at the same time high-minded and lighthearted, full of the excitement of the tourist, but with a little moralising thrown in. He mentions get-togethers on board with fellow locals and comments that they "have come for the outing and to try their luck in South Africa." He jokes about his four days of seasickness in the Bay of Biscay and then frets about a 'cholera belt' which a Miss Eastwood was supposed to be sending him. However, clearly his Christian values are offended by some of the activities of the troops. "I never saw more beer drinking and gambling in my life," and he wonders why the authorities do not do something about it.

Letters from George on April 8th and 11th, inform his parents that he is on the point of disembarkation in South Africa. He recounts with delight how he has eaten masses of grapes at one of the exotic ports-of-call. Not that the voyage had been all playtime. George had been working on the ship's hospital wards, where men were already dying of enteric fever, and clearly the experience of washing a corpse had shaken him. For the sake of his health, and to keep cool, George had been sleeping on deck. He still grumbles about the bad habits and general laxness of some of the troops, but concludes his letter of April 18th by stating that he has enjoyed the voyage immensely, "and I hope we enjoy ourselves as well coming back."

There was to be no coming back for poor George Pickles. For all his clean living, he was dead within a month of arriving in South Africa, and he was likely to outlive very few of those on board whom he believed to were destroying themselves in physical dissipation and moral turpitude. He died of dysentery at Naauwpoort on May 9th, 1900, aged 24, a victim of one of many epidemics that the military authorities seemed incapable of controlling. Two of his ambulance colleagues from Hebden Bridge were to suffer a similar fate. Private John Pickles—no relation to George, but a friend from Birchcliffe Baptist Church—died at Senekal of enteric fever on July 2nd 1900, aged 24. Private John King died at Newcastle (South Africa) of endorcarditis, on October 30th 1900, aged 20.

An inhospitable climate combined with overcrowded camps and casualty filled hospitals made disease rife. Private Harry Haigh, who had sailed on the 'Gaika' along with George and John Pickles, spoke of Bloemfontein as one gigantic hospital, and in a comment of some insight described enteric fever as a deadly scourge, "far greater than any caused by Mauser or Lyddite."

During the Great War of 1914-18, the newspapers treated the seemingly endless casualty lists with a sort of helpless resignation. In this respect, 1900 was the age of innocence. A leading article in the local newspaper for May 18th 1900, displays a bewildered incredulity that George Herbert Pickles, a young man on a humanitarian mission, should be lost to the community. The leader speaks of him as, "young Pickles," in a familiar and intimate way, reflecting a town which, in 1900, really was a close knit community, with all the warmth and prejudice that is generated when people live and work together. Not only did everyone know everyone else, but they knew who their parents and grandparents were too. Imagine the grief of young George's parents when, after the news of his death, they received letters from him that had been delayed at sea.

The Boer War, from the perspective of a small northern textiles town perhaps gives us a narrow view. And yet, multiplied by the experiences of thousands of other small communities, it may not be too far from the truth. The brass plaque in Hebden Bridge Council Offices stands for the reality behind the Imperial posturing of the Diamond Jubilee of 1897—the human cost, a cost that was multiplied to 20,000 British lives, the majority taken by disease. The disgust at this, along with the shame felt at the deaths from disease of over 20,000 Boer women and children in what were termed 'concentration camps,' soured the British view of imperialism.

Therefore, as we approach the millennium to the sound of exploding computers, and celebrate a thousand years of progress, it might be as well to give a passing nod to the Boer War, the inaugural event of a century which has encompassed brilliant technological advances alongside appalling human waste and folly.

This article was first published in the Autumn 1999 edition of Old Yorkshire.