“A long forgotten war, wasted young lives” (1)

The Second Boer War (1899 – 1902) was fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer (Dutch) states, the Republic of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, over the British Empire’s influence in South Africa. The British Empire owned Cape Colony and the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

The catalyst for the war was the discovery of diamonds and gold in the Boer states.

Alexander Frederic Wallis was born on January 18th 1867. Nottingham had seen its worst floods for fifteen years on January 9th. Two feet of water washed over the railway tracks at the station. On the 14th, a recently constructed factory on Carlton-road (sic) had caught fire. On March 14th, the Mechanics Hall was completely destroyed by fire. On March 20th an enormous fire destroyed the premises of William Smith, a “chenille and gimp manufacturer”. On April 2nd, the council agreed to order a steam fire engine, at a cost of £650. This type of thing. A combined fire engine and smoke screen generator:

Alexander Frederic Wallis’ father was Alexander Bruce Wallis, the Captain and Adjutant of the Robin Hood Rifles. In 1879 the family’s address was 1 Goodwin Street, near All Saints’ Church in the area to the west of Waverley Street, more or less directly opposite the bandstand in the Arboretum Park. Goodwin Street is very, very striking, with its tall tenement houses like you might find in Edinburgh or Glasgow. They all have four floors including one for the servants.Here it is. Look for the orange fire engine arrow.

The “education facility” in the middle at the top is the High School. Raleigh Street (west of the Arboretum Lake, and south of the orange arrow) was where the history of Raleigh bicycles started in 1885. That is why the brand was called “Raleigh”.

In the same year, Captain Wallis had moved to nearby No 3 Burns Street, a magnificent Victorian house with that eccentric, almost random architecture of the wilder Victorian architects of the period, including huge gables, oriel windows, patterns made with darker bricks and a pointed archway to the front door. Here is the house today:

By 1894, now Major Wallis rather than Captain, he and his family were living at 50 Forest Road West, extremely close to the High School. On the map above,  Forest Road West is to the west of the small lemon yellow coloured circle which represents the High School’s tram stop. Four years later in 1898-1899, Major Wallis and his family had moved to Neville Terrace at 15 Wellington Square, directly off Derby Road just after Canning Circus. This must have been much more convenient for the Robin Hood Rifles’ Orderly Room in Castle Yard. The family were still there in 1904, but after that, I was unable to trace them.

Their son, Alexander Frederic Wallis entered the High School on September 12th 1879 as Boy No 583. He was 12 years old. His career remains a blank because the majority of the School Lists have not survived and the rest are just lists of boys’ surnames with no distinguishing initials. The School played soccer then but Alexander does not figure in the reports we still have, nor indeed, in the records of the cricket team. He left the High School at the end of the Christmas Term in 1882. Here is the High School during that era, captured in a high quality albumen print:

At this time the Headmaster was Dr Robert Dixon, nicknamed “Dido” and the staff would have included Mr Bray or “Donkey”, Mr Seymour or “Donkeys”, Mr Jennings or “Jigger”, Mr Corner or “Sammy” and his younger brother, Mr J Corner or “Jig”, Mr Townson or “Benjy” , the Reverend Easton or “Jiggerty” and Mr William Edward Ryles or “Jumbo” and Mr Wilfrid Tyson Ryles or “Nipper”.

Nicknameless staff included Herr Altorfer, Monsieur Brunner, Monsieur Durand, Mr Jackson, Mr Small and Sergeant-Major Vickers the Drill Sergeant. There was also Mr Leopold Compline Wilkes or “Demi”, who went to South Africa in 1893 to be Headmaster of Kimberley Public School, only to die of typhoid, or enteric fever, on May 16th 1899, aged only 37. Here they all are. Still shocked by the recent death of General Custer:

Like poor “Demi”,  young Alexander Wallis, now 33 years of age, was also destined to die in South Africa, but as a soldier during the Second Boer War. He was just one of the 23,000 who paid the ultimate price of other men’s greed. Here is his epitaph taken from “The Forester” as the first School Magazine was called :

“Captain Alexander Frederic Wallis, killed in action near Arundel, near Colesberg, in Cape Colony, on February 24th 1900, was the second son of Major AB Wallis, formerly of the 33rd Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment and late adjutant of the Robin Hood Rifles. He entered the High School on September 12th 1879 and left at Christmas, 1882, being afterwards educated at Derby and Sandhurst. Captain Wallis entered the 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment as a second- lieutenant and obtained his lieutenancy in 1889 and his captaincy in 1896. He served in Bermuda, Halifax, Jamaica, St Helena, Natal and Zululand. On the outbreak of the Matabele war in 1896 he proceeded to Mafeking where he served at the base and on lines of communication. At the finish of the war he went to Malta and was then quartered with the regiment at Dover in Kent. The regiment then went out to South Africa, Captain Wallis being in command of the Mounted Infantry Company. On his arrival in Cape Town he joined Major-General Clements’s (sic) Brigade at Arundel. He had just celebrated his 33rd birthday, and had 13 years’ army service. In Nottingham much sympathy is felt for Major Wallis in his bereavement.”

The village of Colesberg saw many battles and skirmishes during the Second Boer War. They brought into opposition the British and the Boers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. This is the view looking towards the village:

A day-by-day timeline of the war listed the day of Alexander’s death as an “engagement” rather than a skirmish or a battle.



Filed under Africa, History, military, Nottingham, Politics, The High School

24 responses to ““A long forgotten war, wasted young lives” (1)

  1. I think the main problem over the Boer War was the English assumption that the Boers would roll over.

    • I would agree with you there, Derrick, and that was then compounded by the fact that so many of the British volunteers, for various reasons, made very poor soldiers. Very few of them were vaccinated with the new typhoid vaccine, and many of them died of the disease. (Perhaps a lesson from history, there?)

  2. GP

    This is history we don’t often hear about – at least not here in the States. Thank you, John.

    • We have quite a history of small expansionist wars so don’t hesitate to ask. Most of them we have never heard of ourselves. Nepal (1814-1816), China (1839–1842), Crimean War (1853–1856), China (1856-1860), Ethiopia (1867–1868), Zululand (1879), Tibet (1903-1904), the Zulus (1906). And above all, Afghanistan (1839-1842), Afghanistan (1878-1880) and Afghanistan (1919). In many cases, we thought they would be easy victories, but they didn’t necessarily turn out that way……

  3. Pierre Lagacé

    Always about power and greed isn’t John?

    • Well, it certainly was in the case of the Boer War. The amount of gold and diamonds discovered was such that the men who kept the British Empire grinding ever outwards couldn’t resist them.
      The problem was, as always, that the men who wanted the gold and diamonds weren’t prepared to fight for them personally, and “The Common Man” was the one who paid the price. In the case of the city of Nottingham, a total of 83 young men lie buried a long, long, way from home.

      • Pierre Lagacé

        Very sad indeed.

      • Pierre Lagacé

        Link to Canada’s participation…



        The South African War (1899-1902) or, as it is also known, the Boer War, marked Canada’s first official dispatch of troops to an overseas war.

        In 1899, fighting erupted between Great Britain and two small republics in South Africa. (See map) The two republics, settled by Boers, descendants of the region’s first Dutch immigrants, were not expected to survive for long against the world’s greatest power. Pro-Empire Canadians nevertheless urged their government to help. The war, they argued, pitted British freedom, justice, and civilization against Boer backwardness.

      • Pierre Lagacé

        They had to find a reason to get involved…

        The war, they argued, pitted British freedom, justice, and civilization against Boer backwardness.

      • Pierre Lagacé

        Imperial forces attempted to deny the Boers the food, water and lodging afforded by sympathetic farmers. Britain’s grim strategy took the war to the civilian population. Canadian troops burned Boer houses and farms, and moved civilians to internment camps. In these filthy camps, an estimated 28,000 prisoners died of disease, most of them women, children, and black workers. Civilian deaths provoked outrage in Britain and in Canada. This harsh strategy eventually defeated the Boers.

  4. Pingback: “A long forgotten war, wasted young lives” (1) — John Knifton – Lest We Forget II

  5. Excellent post. What happened to the Robin Hood Rifles? There is a very good film called “Breaker Morant” which tells of the futility of the war.

  6. Thank you, Andrew. In answer to your question, to be honest I do not know, but I suspected that they would have been absorbed into something else. In actual fact, the whole convoluted tale is in Wikipedia:
    You can give yourself a headache by reading the first two paragraphs of the section about World War One!
    I have seen Breaker Morant a couple of times. It is a superb film about the savagery of war. Personally I have always been very uneasy about why other countries were fighting with the British forces in South Africa. They included Australia, Canada and New Zealand, with at least 100,000 Black Africans working behind the scenes. And apparently, there were even prison camps for the Boers in India! A total of 9000 Boer POWs were sent to India, and they were held in some 14-15 camps in selected Indian locations..

  7. Chris Waller

    I have to admit to a complete ignorance of the Boer Wars – I didn’t even know there were two of them. I didn’t know that it was primarily over gold and diamonds. I had certainly never given any thought to the question of prisoners of war and had no idea that they were expatriated to India. I had always imagined that the Boer War (as I knew it) was just a minor local skirmish. Your story does make me aware of just how little I know of the history of South Africa prior to the apartheid era.

    “Consider too the greed and lust of power that drive unhappy men … struggling night and day with unstinted effort to scale the pinnacles of wealth.” -Lucretius.

    • Hi Chris! Just after I mentioned India I found that they used to send them to St Helena as well. A few years ago, I met a gentleman who had worked for many years on SS Uganda, and he reckoned St Helena was the most wonderful place in the world. Lucky Boers then!
      More seriously, the Boer War was a shabby affair which gave the Germans a chance to accuse the British of inventing the concentration camp and overall showed the British Empire in a very poor light. The pity was that around 15,000 soldiers died in South Africa, the majority of them from disease, rather than in combat.

  8. What great research John. The detail you mange to find always amazes me! Getting to search through old school records must be difficult, especially going back that far!

    • I make it all up! No, seriously, the bulk of the information comes from obituaries published in the school magazine, “The Forester”, which always provides enormous detail about whatever events it is reporting.
      There are a few more sad stories to come about the Boer War, whose memorial is within two hundred yards of the school, and the first four or five names on it are all Old Nottinghamians.

      • Obviously a good source then! The Boer war is one area of history I know so little about. I certainly hope other wars don’t go the same way and end up generally forgotten about.

  9. “The catalyst for the war was the discovery of diamonds and gold in the Boer states.”
    Isn’t that the case in most wars, John? Your research is bar none phenomenal!! I applaud you!

    • Thank you, Amy, you are very kind. Personally, I think that if you love gold and diamonds that much, you haven’t quite got the right idea about how to live Life.
      From when we were at school, I remember this text:
      “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.
      For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

      • John, that is how I strive to live my life every day. I love that quote from the Bible. The wonderful aspect to this ideology is that when we do live from this perspective, all of our needs and more will be given to us. It’s amazing!!

  10. Thank you, I learn a lot from your posts.

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