Object Lessons: An exploration of the collection at the Whitaker

The story so far….

20 year old Haslingden lad Fred Grimshaw has joined the East Lancashire Volunteers and after a brief and basic training has found himself in South Africa where the British are fighting the Boers.

Fred’s duties have mostly involved bridge guarding but that is about to change.

In this second of three instalments, relayed exactly as Fred wrote in his diary [my comments looking like this] which is on display at the Whitaker, he is about to encounter the guerrilla tactics of the Boers, suffer extreme hardship and get his hands on the deadly Maxim gun. We shall pick up with a full account of his 21st birthday…

Fred's diary entry on his 21st Birthday

Fred's diary entry on his 21st Birthday

On Friday April 20th passed my 21st birthday on guard duty at Buffell’s Bridge.

On Friday April 27th saw two ambulance men just come out from Haslingden, namely Overstall and Bibbay going up to Kimberley, the day after whilst bathing had narrow escape from being drown, but for the assistance of my chum Pte J. Henshaw the result would have been fatal, the day after I reported sick, through shock the day before, leaving me with a severe headache but with the doctor’s aid I was soon put right.

Whilst on guard at Geelbeck [Geelbek] on May 1st, they received a telegram saying that we had to proceed to Bloemfontein [about 500 miles away by train] on May 3rd, this day we pulled our tents down about 6.30 pm having got relieved by the West Riding Militia, we must have missed the train or else it did not come, so that we had to wait all night, and it was the next day at 7am that we left Laingsburg by the train, stopping at Beaufort West for our tea where we commence singing, the people thinking because we was so happy that we was going home, riding all night and arriving at De Aar at 6am passing Coleburg Cop [assume near Colesberg] where one of the great battles was fought and onto Neauport [Noupoort] stopping about about an hour then onto Nouvals Point [Norvalspont] where we had to get out and have our tea, also to get on wagons, the bridge here was blown up so we had to go over pontune bridge taking us at least an hour before we got away, arriving at Bloemfontein at 10am here they told us we should have to go to our Regt, but had to wait till Tuesday May 8th for a train, where our next stop was at Brandfort couldn’t go further on account of the line being blown up, here there had been a fight had they had left plenty of dead horses. 

On Wednesday May 16th one of my mates Pte G Hitchen went in the hospital and the next morning at 3am we had to go with a convoy up the country stopping about 7am, and started again at 4pm and walk till we arrived at Vet River this day we had covered about 22 miles, on Friday May 18th we did same thing as before, going pass Small Deal [possibly], and the next day we set off at 3.30am till off again at 9am untill 12am then again the front set off at 3.30pm but our section was the rear guard and it was 6.30pm before we set off, so you can imagine what sort of convoy it was we got lost, but happily we found the camp this being at Sand River where there was another bridge blown, and the water was poisoned, we was only one days march off the column, but as the luck would have it they would not let us go any further. But had to stop and help to make a temporary line, we had to start at 6am till 9am either navvy or carry sleepers then again 12am till 3pm on Sunday May 20th on one shift the other being from 9am to 12am and 3pm till 6pm. 

On Monday May 21st received orders to take another convoy, starting off at 3pm and stopped at 7.30pm for the night. The next day we was off at 4am till 7am and again at 4pm passing through [illegible but looking something like Reit Spouit] and halting at 8pm. On the following day just as usual but I was orderly man, so when we stopped I had to fetch the wake for meals, at night we had a good march, and had to stop before we got too any water this being about two miles off, but of course we had to fetch it just the same. 

A Queen Victoria chocolate tin given to the British troops during the South Africa campaign, on display at the Whitaker Museum. Fred would not have received one as they were issued just before he arrived

A Queen Victoria chocolate tin given to the British troops during the South Africa campaign, on display at the Whitaker Museum. Fred would not have received one as they were issued just before he arrived

The next day is what we all knew, the Queens birthday we arriving at Kroonstad, about 7am expecting a little fuss in celebrating of this eventful day, the only surprise for us was that we could get nothing but half rations (two biscuits), well we passed on at night getting lost starting at 3pm and walk till 10.30pm, being completely lost, no water about, and of course no tea for us. We went on night, passing through Boodewual [possibly], Groobike [possibly], and Wolvehock [Wolwehoek] here we gave part of our rations to a little hospital, the patients having nothing, the same night we got lost about four times, commencing at 2.15pm till 9.30pm, this time we was completely done up we lost many bullocks, through giving them to much fatigue, dropping down dead, having to get our hands to the wheels many a time. 

The next morning, Tuesday May 29th they was off before we knew where we was, with the result they we got lost but with good luck we managed to find them this was a very hard days work, both for us, and the bullocks, we came into contact with one road where we could make no headway, every time we took a stride, we would sink at least a foot into sand, so you can tell what the bullocks would have to do, but at last we stopped, this time at Vil Joens Drift, where we had to remain having to go no further, this ended our convoy marching for the present. The distance is from Brandfort to Vaal River, on (Vil Joens Drift), about 209 miles. 

On Thursday May 31st we parted one half going to the other side of the Vaal River and the others remaining where they was the second half (Burnley) or second battalion crossed the Vaal at 9am having to wade through the river taking us up to our knees. Here was the bridge that Gen French was just too late in saving, the boers having blown one span at one end down, being wedge with the stone pillars, but it was enough, causing us to have to make a temporary bridge and make a cutting for a new line, we had to work both day and night, 6hrs a day navvying and out post at night, working the same as at Zan River 3 hours at a time. 

A typical group of Boer fighters; skilled in guerrilla tactics on the land they knew so well

A typical group of Boer fighters; skilled in guerrilla tactics on the land they knew so well

On Tuesday June 5th we had to work with our equipment on and our rifles by our side, and the guard on, because the enemy was very near, once or twice we had to lay our tools down, and lay in hiding, the same night they removed us to the our side under the big bridge. And here we had very hard duties to do, beside having to work at the railway line, we had as many as nine nights out, out of ten, and neve [assume ‘never’] had more than half rations, and many times tea without sugar, surprising what work you can do with little to eat when you are put to it. And you must bear in mind that it is winter time, none of us had a good suit to put on, some without, wearing drawers, others patched all over, nearly frozen to death at night. I have had many blankets one inch thick with frost on top, water in your bottle frozen. We have had to stand to arms many a time at night, and sometimes skirmish around, but never came into contact with any of them, although they have been so near as to fire on us. 

On Monday June 11th the first engine and two wagons went over the new bridge and up the new line, which we had made, bringing supplies up the country for the men at the front so after this we had it a little better. If this train had not come we should have had to make our own rations, for the day before, we had got the last biscuits, but still we had to keep on half rations. The line we made would be on one side about ¾ of a mile, the beginning would be as deep as four yards (sometimes having to cut through rock) and keep decreasing till it came to the level, this finish our railway work. After this we had to make ourselves more secure from the enemy. 

Thursday June 14th the other half company came to us, they having been guarding the railway station and coal mines, having had heavy duties, at night we was told to pack up and be on the railway line in half an hour, so off we went, and walked all night, but no further news came, only that we should have gone to assist some other troops down the line, who was being attack, but they had made them skirmish off, so we was not wanted, and had to return to our old place under the bridge.

On Saturday June 16th Pte. R Stebbins had to go to Johannesburg to hospital having enteric fever. Having had some very bad weather lately, raining nearly every day and no tents. 

On Friday June 29th got orders to [last three words crossed out] join our reg who is stationed at Johannesburg, arriving there about 12pm a distance of 45mls giving us a hearty welcome and half a loaf and tea which we wanted badly, the ground where they are is called the Agripeulare [can’t find what this might refer to] place, so we had the benefit of sleeping under cover, the first time since we left Laingsburg. 

The morning after we had a full pack parade before the Com (commanding) officer of the East Lancs, Colonel Wright who said, he was very pleased that we had arrived at last, as he had been waiting this last three months and sorry that we was not with him in the fighting but he would do his best to get us in an engagement also very sorry that we was in so bad a state for clothing, he had never seen none like us before, but he would do his best to get us an outfit, and that he was very pleased with the report, concerning our duties down the line especially at Vaal River, for he said although we was not in the fighting line, we had done so much as to stop the troop from being clamed.

The day after was Sunday but we would not go to church on account of our bad clothing. When we arrived in this place, our Com officer Captain Woodhouse was a prisoner through neglect to his company and next in command Leut. Craven went into hospital at Vaal River, so we only had Leut Howard. 

Thursday July 5th inspection by General Waveley of our rooms. The day after I got a pair of civilians trousers and the jersey, the first issue since we set off and not before we wanted them.

Sunday July 8th left Johannesburg with another Co of the East Lancs and marched to Elandsfontein a distance of 10 miles, this place is a big junction station, lines coming from all parts of the country the following day I went with a convoy full of ammunition up the country, but return the next day. We are now again on the veldt, near to a redoubt, splendid work done by the engineers, in case of an attack. Here again we had plenty of duty to do, in guarding the gold mines, as many as 5 out 6 nights, besides having to stand to arms soon on every morning.

On Wednesday July 11th 1900 got news about my chum Pte. James Henshaw having died from enteric fever in Johannesburg. He went in hospital after being in that place three days but had been ill about a week. [This was the man who had earlier saved Fred from drowning. It is worth noting that of around 20,700 official British war casualties 13,139 are listed as having died of illness or disease]

Thursday July 12th had a visit from Major General Churnside [looks like this but no such person identifiable as having served in South Africa].

On Wednesday July 18th return of Pte Hitchen who we left at Brandfort in the hospital. 
Sunday July 22nd had another 100 rounds of ammunition given to us, every person having to carry 200 rounds.

Friday July 27th orders came to be at the station as soon as possible, where we entrain and went to Vereninging [Vereeniging] handily its near to Vaal River along with Sir Alfred, (a big gun) but the enemy was off before we could get there and had to return the next morning, and another on Monday escorting too naval guns, Little Bobs, off the HMS Doras, and the other Joe Chamberlain, belonging to HMS Barrossa [Barossa].

[These naval guns were nicknamed after British leaders in the war – Sir Alfred would be South African High Commissioner Milner who Fred met a couple of months previously and who he had received the gift of ‘tobacca’ from. Little Bobs would likely be after Lord Roberts who was commonly referred to as ‘Our Bob’]

Souvenir South Africa campaign handkerchief on display next to Fred’s diary, Whittaker Museum

Souvenir South Africa campaign handkerchief on display next to Fred’s diary, Whittaker Museum

On Tuesday July 31st surrender of General Prinslose [Prinsloo] and 5 thousand men. We had been asked by Major Lewis of the East Lancs to do the Regt a favour and find the supply guard, a supply that kept everything, not only rations but liquor, being too tempting to the regulars, so of course we readily concented. 

Tuesday August 14th had to moved and instead of being on the veldt, went into houses, or what the miners live in when they are employed at the gold mine. 

Thursday following our draft 22 men and Leut Button arrived here, having been doing duty down at Vet river. The day after we received our kit bags having left them at Cape Town, the majority being empty the contents having been stolen.

The water cooled Maxim machine gun, capable of firing 600 rounds a minute and somewhat incongruously referred to as a ‘Pom-Pom’ due to the sound it made

The water cooled Maxim machine gun, capable of firing 600 rounds a minute and somewhat incongruously referred to as a ‘Pom-Pom’ due to the sound it made

On Saturday August 18th started to take lessons on the new maxim gun, one that is shaped to the mules, these being three mules two for ammunition, and the other for the maxim lessons. Lessons from 9am till 12am knock off all other duties there was 8 men and Lanc corp out of our company and others out of the regt these being altogether about 14. 

At night there was a concert in a school belonging to the church, we had an enjoyable evening, comprised of civilians, and troops.

Practising with the maxim the next few week having a nice time of it.

On Thursday August 30th there is only 4 of us now with the maxim the others having to do duty we have nothing to do but stand to it every morning, when the troops are standing to arms and after breakfast clean it, but we had always to be ready, chance if we was called upon. 

maxim machine gun diary entry
Fred’s entries at the back of his diary regarding the Maxim gun

Fred’s entries at the back of his diary regarding the Maxim gun

We are going to leave Fred practicing with the Maxim for now – in the final entry we re-join him as he encounters a plague of locusts…

Mick Stephens
Twitter – @brownbowlerhat
Independent Antiques Dealer & Valuer / Whitaker Museum Collections Consultant