Sunday, 29 April 2018

"...while asleep in the trenches."

Reading through newspapers I found a short story picked off the news wires by many newspapers in Britain filed by the Pretoria correspondent of The Standard in early November 1900:

""Last week a party of fifty Boers surprised the volunteer company of the Berkshire Regiment while asleep in the trenches. The first intimation of the presence of the enemy was when the Boers woke them up and demanded their arms which were surrendered." The officers have been placed under arrest, pending a court martial."

This was a unique event in the war, and very shameful for the British Army. Looking into the casualty rolls the names of these men are not recorded. Fortunately, the Army kept a record of every surrender that occurred as each was inspected to ensure officers and men made every effort to resist the enemy. These records are published as South African Surrenders, War Office 1905, a copy is available at the National Archives under WO108-372.

The incident occurred on October 28, 1900 at Holfontein Siding in the Orange Free State. Such was the scale of the surrender and the circumstances it merited a special account. Holfontein Siding is 30 km south-west of Kroonstad on the line to Bloemfontein.

The volunteer service company commanded by Cpt AF Ewen entrained at Kroonstad with orders to go to Holfontein. On arriving there they were informed by the Commandant, Cpt RE Watt, 1st bn Oxfordshire Light Infantry, to proceed to Holfontein Siding 4 miles further and dig in. Their departed and on arrival his men began digging trenches. The ground was very hard and progress was slow. Patrols were sent out and sentries. In the evening a big storm erupted which did not end until the early hours of the 28th. At 4am a patrol was sent out which shortly returned the news that cavalry were approaching the camp. Cpt Ewen saw the approaching horsemen were dressed in kakhi and wearing slouch hats, when they were about 100 yds they shouted "Hands Up". Ewen could see there were just a handful of his men in the entrenchments and only two had rifles in hand, everyone else was asleep, rifles piled in neat stacks. Faced with an estimated 300-400 Boers he had no choice but to surrender. The volunteers were rounded and marched off to be stripped while others looted the camp removing arms, ammunition, food and anything else they fancied.

From the south an armoured train could be heard which opened fire on the Boers who rode off. Shortly afterwards General TC Porter rode up with his staff, the 3rd Cavalry Brigade were in the neighbourhood.

Ewen was bought before a court-martial on November 20 at Bloemfontein charged with; "that he shamefully delivered up a post to the enemy" and "he was taken prisoner by want of due precaution". The court asked why the men were not stood to at daybreak, Ewen replied he did not think it was necessary. The court found Ewen guilty of the second charge but not the first, the sentence was a severe reprimand and forfeiture of any campaign medal. Lord Roberts approved the court's decision. When the War Office reviewed the case it confirmed the sentence and added that Ewen forfeits his war gratuity. The medal roll shows Ewen was awarded a QSA medal, whether it was recovered is not known.

The names are not probably recorded in the casualty rolls because they were only prisoners for a short period, even though they lost their arms and ammunition. I have added their names to The Register, the medal roll clearly shows the volunteer service company headed by Cpt Ewen's name. There are 130 names (excluding those who died before this incident and Lt WP Alleyne who served as a Railway Staff Officer, Bloemfontein).

Ewen's military career was not unduly upset, he continued to serve in the volunteers and then the Territorial Force before he resigned in 1911. He re-joined for WW1 serving at home as a Major (temporary).









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