“A long forgotten war, wasted young lives” (6)

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

Last time, we saw how William Henry Heath, the son of a farmer at Bestwood Park to the north of the city of Nottingham may have helped out on the farm, before joining the army and sailing off for a distant, exotic and exciting war in South Africa, the home of gold and diamonds. A large number of Britain’s soldiers in South Africa were transported there on the SS Winifredian, an extremely powerful and very fast steamer, with the rakish lines you’d expect in a ship of that calibre:

Needless to say, things did not go very well for William in South Africa. Before too many years had elapsed William was dead and buried in the thin dry soil of the veldt:

Here is a typical Boer War grave marker. It is in cast iron and reads at the top “For King & Empire”. Because it was made of iron, the embossed lettering tend to last very well in the extremely dry wind of the veldt:

There is a certain amount of confusion about which unit William was serving in when he died. Two local Nottingham websites say that he was serving as a trooper in “The South African Constabulary”. On the other hand, the website with the Roll of Honour from the Nottingham War Memorial of the Boer War says that William Heath was a Private in the 11th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry. His service number was ‘1972’. Here are the Imperial Yeomanry in a colour print:

And here is just one member of the Imperial Yeomanry, complete with a dead white goose and his extremely alert horse, Dobbin:

William Heath, though, like more than 20,000 other British soldiers, appears not to have died in action but to have died of disease in Pretoria on February 14th 1902.

Illness, of course, despite all of the measures taken by the British Army, was the most frequent way to die in this war. The Royal Army Medical Corps had foreseen this, and had taken the precaution of mobilising more than 150 special units, along with 28 field ambulances and more than twenty hospitals of various types.

A thousand Indians from Natal were taken on to work as stretcher bearers. One of them would one day become extremely famous. At the time he was a young lawyer in Durban but he worked as a stretcher bearer during the Battles of Colenso and Spion Kop. Here he is,

Clue No 1

“This little brown man in the loincloth was a private man without wealth, without property, without official title or office. He was not a commander of great armies nor ruler of vast lands. He could boast no scientific achievements or artistic gift.”

Clue No 2

He said:

“I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew and so are all of you.”

Clue No 3

He said:

“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

Did you spot him? He’s to the right of the white man with a beard in the middle row, and the man in the back row directly behind him has his hands on his shoulders. And who is he? Well, he’s the most mis-spelled famous person in the world. So, his name isn’t “Ghandi”.

William Heath’s younger brother, Leonard George Heath, was also, like his brother, a pupil at Grosvenor School but he then entered the High School on January 21st 1896. He was in the Lower First with Mr JS Jones in 1895-1896 (sixth of sixteen in the Form Order and in English, 8/12 in French and 14th / 42 in Writing). One of that sixteen was Edward Archer Thurman, a victim of the First World War, killed on December 3rd 1917 in Palestine and buried in Ramleh War Cemetery

With Mr Marriott in the Upper First in 1896-1897, Leonard finished 22/34 in the Form, 16th in English, 27th in French, 22nd in Latin and 10/33 in Writing. In 1897-1898 he was in the Lower Second with Mr WT “Nipper” Ryles, finishing 32/38 in the Form, 34th in English, 29th in French, 32nd in Latin and 15/34 in Writing.

Here is a section of the staff photograph from 1901. Mr Jones is in the centre of the back row. On his left, as you look at the photograph, is Mr Wilfrid Tyson Ryles, alias “Nipper” Ryles. To the right of Mr Jones, as you look at the photograph is Mr Samuel Rnssell Trotman, a teacher of Chemistry and Gymnastics. He would have needed to be fit to cope with a class of 78 pupils as he did in one particular year. You read it right. 78 pupils!!

In front of Nipper Ryles is Mr “Sammy” Corner, in front of Mr Jones is the Headmaster, the Reverend Doctor James Gow, and in front of Mr Trotman is Mr Francis Coverley Smith.

The following year, Leonard George Heath is no longer listed in the School List, and, indeed, by this point, namely July 1898, he seems to have left.

He does not figure in the 1911 census, but we do know that Leonard emigrated to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil where he married Miss Ida Gilbert. When the First World War broke out, the two of them then returned to sunny Bestwood, and Leonard immediately joined the Sherwood Rangers to fight the filthy Huns. He died of his wounds on March 14th 1916 by which time he was a Captain in the 3rd Skinners Horse, in the Meerut Brigade of the Indian Army. He was buried in Le Tréport Military Cemetery in France, and poor Ida, who died on March 25th 1918, possibly of Spanish flu, was buried at Bestwood Emmanuel Cemetery

Rather poignantly, in 1928, their father, Henry Heath, was still patiently ploughing the land at Sunrise Farm.



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

19 responses to ““A long forgotten war, wasted young lives” (6)

  1. I wouldn’t have spotted him, but the clues were revealing

    • They weren’t bad for a first try. For blog posts no 600 and 601, I’m going to have a quiz on the Beatles, so it’s nice to know I’m doing OK at question setting. (This post is No 585). As for Gandhi, I actually forgot on the first occasion of writing the post to supply the answer as to which person he was, and I would have to admit that I couldn’t pick him out and had to access the original website.

  2. Thank you for the photo of Gandhi. I wonder if he would have thought where life would take him in the future. I am glad that you are writing about people who would otherwise have been forgotten. Thank you.

    • My pleasure. I have always been interested in the humble, ordinary person rather than the kings and emperors. All of the young men I have talked about in this series died for their country, but now, 120 years later, they are about to disappear for ever into history.

  3. I wonder how much the stretcher bearers were paid.

    • That’s a very interesting question. They may have been well-meaning volunteers or they could have been conscripted into the British Army. At this time, non-white men were not allowed to take part in combat, and that may have resulted in Gandhi being give the choice of loading/unloading trains and horse drawn waggons, the usual types of work around an army camp, or the ambulance service. Perhaps Gandhi, being the man he was, chose the Red Cross.

      • Thanks for the response. I have always wondered about the motivation of non-whites serving in the wars between whites. I can’t imagine that it was purely economic, but perhaps it was.

  4. atcDave

    Just recently learned a tidbit relevant to this War. The Calcutta Light Horse served here, then stood down afterwards. Then in 1943, 41 years later, they were recruited by the SOE for an off the books raid on the German transmitter in the Neutral city of Goa.
    It boggles my mind to think of a bunch of 60 somethings off on a commando raid!

    • Thank very much for that. I did some searching around and found out that the Calcutta Light Horse was an auxiliary unit who did not see any actual, combat in South Africa during the Boer War but, as you correctly point out, were involved in top secret work in India during WW2. A note in Wikipedia says:
      “Fourteen of them, with four colleagues from the Calcutta Scottish, another Auxiliary Force unit, volunteered for a hazardous task which, for reasons the author makes plain, no-one else was able to undertake. This happened shortly before my arrival in India in 1943, as Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, and immediately saw how valuable were the results of this secret operation.” The book alluded to is “Boarding Party” by James Leasor” and the man talking is Lord Mountbatten.
      My guess about the problem alluded to is that the British Army had no other non-white troops capable of carrying out the mission, and that there was a problem with the make up the white actors used in the annual “Christmas Minstrels Show” which kept running in the tropical heat. Just a wild guess mind!

  5. What a small world it is! To think paths would cross with such famous people. Soldiers of India, like so many others, have always been taken for granted by Britain and little recognition given to their efforts.

    • Here is a much abbreviated paragraph from Wilipedia:
      “The British Indian Army during World War II began the war in 1939 numbering just under 200,000 men. By the end of the war, it had become the largest volunteer army in history, rising to over 2.5 million men in August 1945. They fought on three continents in Africa, Europe and Asia.
      The British Indian Army fought in Ethiopia against the Italians, in North Africa against both the Italians and Germans , and then against the Germans in Italy. The bulk of the Indian Army was committed to fighting the Japanese, first in Malaya and the retreat from Burma to the Indian border and later in the victorious advance back into Burma, as part of the largest British Empir army ever formed. These campaigns cost the lives of over 87,000 Indian servicemen. Their valour was recognised with the award of some 4,000 decorations, and 18 members of British Indian Army were awarded the Victoria Cross or the George Cross. The Commander-in-Chief, Auchinleck said that the British “couldn’t have come through both either World War I or II without the British Indian Army”. Winston Churchill paid tribute to “The unsurpassed bravery of Indian soldiers and officers.”
      And I have had boys of Indian and Pakistani heritage in my classes who were completely unaware that either India or Pakistan fought in either of the World Wars.

      • It’s remarkable what they did for Britain, it’s a shame it’s not more widely celebrated either here or abroad.

      • It would be really great to have a statue put up to all the non-white casualties of the two wars. Personally, I was shocked to see all the names on the screen when I asked to see who was buried after WW2 in the cemetery at Singapore.

  6. George Kanigowski

    Never could work out what this war was all about? It became the Republic of South Africa in 1960 when the British Empire broke up.

  7. Good morning, George! As far as I can trace, the First Boer War (1880-1881), is explained thus by Wikipedia:
    “Three prime factors fuelled British expansion into Southern Africa:
    1 the desire to control the trade routes to India that passed around the Cape of Good Hope
    2 the discovery in 1868 of huge mineral deposits of diamonds around Kimberley on the joint borders of the South African Republic (called the Transvaal by the British), the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony, and thereafter in 1886 in the Transvaal gold rush
    3 the race against other European colonial powers, as part of a general European colonial expansion in Africa
    It is described in detail at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Boer_War
    The Second Boer War is explained as “The trigger of the war was the discovery of diamonds and gold in the Boer states.” and the detailed account is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Boer_War
    And you are right, everybody settled down to a future together in 1960. IN 1961, South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth because of its racial laws.

  8. Pingback: “A long forgotten war, wasted young lives” (7) | John Knifton

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