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Heroes of My Youth – 4 b ihr hms SPION KOP

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A host of heroes only some of which can be mentioned by name. The Boer War started in 1899 by a declaration of war by the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of what is now South Africa against the British who were in charge of the territory at the time. Despite the optimism on the English side that it would be a short-lived affair it continued until 1902. My wife’s father, Oswald Gaunt Smith served as

a mounted trooper in the British Army and could well have been involved in the battle of Spion Kop which started on 24th January 1900. In earlier fighting the Boers had succeeded in driving the British out of the key town of Ladysmith after laying siege to it. Sir Redvers Buller in charge of the British forces was instructed to make an advance on the town and retake it. Intelligence must have been gained by Louis Botha of the attack and he set out to ward off Buller, backed by an army of guerrillas drawn from the farmlands of the district. The two armies met virtually face-to-face at Spion Kop. An important addition to the British forces was

the young Winston Churchill; he had joined the Fourth Hussars in 1895 and had already seem action against the Dervishes at the battle of Omdurman, Egypt. At Spion Kop he was a member of the South African Light Horse and spent his time as a combatant, a messenger, and a correspondent for the Morning Post in London sending reports back on the situation at the battle front. He it was in his book, My Early Life, published in 1930, who described the Kop as a rocky hill rising 1400 feet above the River Tagula with a flat top about as large as Trafalgar Square into which some 2000 British infantry were packed with little cover from the mortars and sniper fire of the enemy. It was an odd disposition of forces with the main body of Buller’s men, some 30,000, being detached from the men on the top of the hill. The battle itself lasted sixteen days during which time it would have been possible to bypass the Kop and head for Ladysmith but the opportunity was not taken. Eventually, the order to withdraw was signalled leaving the Boers to occupy the British Army’s previous positions. It was a victory for the Boers, although Ladysmith was retaken at a later date. Casualties amounted to 243 killed and 1500 wounded on the British side and 335 killed and wounded among the Boers. I can well imagine what Winston Churchill and Oswald Gaunt Smith might have felt as they were, no doubt, soldiering together in the same place at the same time. Although Agatha’s father would often recount

some of his experiences of the War. I never learned what provision was made for the welfare of soldiers returning home after nearly 3 years of fighting in a land foreign to them. From all accounts Oswald Gaunt Smith had to fend much for himself there being little in the way of state support and charities were probably not in being at the time. Now, there are a number of such organisations; Combat Stress, providing care for those suffering from

mental stress; SSAFFA, the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmens’ Family Association, looking after families of War veterans; The British Legion, with its general measures of support for all service men and women; The Not Forgotten Association, and many others. The battle made a deep impression on football

supporters, the naming of the Kop for one of the stands at Liverpool FC and other venues in England as well as by clubs in foreign leagues. The turning of the century saw the end of the Boer War, a period of history covered in great detail by Thomas Pakenham’s book of that name. Like all wars it had its terrible moments for both sets of combatants; a heavy bombardment made by the British towards the end of the campaign led to a private soldier describing the scene as an “acre of massacre” and causing Winston Churchill to report that corpses laid everywhere some so mutilated that they were unrecognisable A white marble statue marks the centre of the

battlefield while a line of graves dug into the rocky outcrop shows where the British were buried and where they died. It is of interest to note that one of the stretcher bearers for the British Army was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who later became known as Mahatma Gandhi who led India to independence in 1947. When the war ended in 1902 the British Empire was

still intact and rejoicing in the victory won; there was no sign on the horizon of the horror which was to be WW1; yet instead of ushering in a period of peace and stability the new century was the start of almost continual warfare, a century leading to the present conflict in Afghanistan which has already lasted longer than World Wars 1 and 2 put together. Away from the doom and gloom of warfare the

opening of the 20th Century had brighter things to offer; the Gramophone and Typewriter Company sending Fred Gaisberg from London to Milan with the specific task of recording on 78rpm wax discs the voices of well-known Italian opera singers. On arrival Gaisberg was so impressed by the voice of a new tenor, Enrico Caruso, that he threw caution to the winds and recorded at a cost of £100 (a sum phenomenal at the time) ten operatic arias. He was duly reprimanded on his return to London but it turned out to be a sensational achievement starting in motion the production of voice recording, not only for singing but also speech, which has been developed into a major industry. Not only do we have CDs for audio but DVDs and Blu-ray for TV viewing. The telephone was in its early days of general usage

but through the development of Marconi’s Wireless and Telegraph Company and others it has grown into the highly-sophisticated mobiles used by so many today. There is much more for which we can be thankful in

the 20th Century but technical wizardry will go on regardless. In fact we might ask “What next?” To misquote from Shakespeare who had words for any occasion: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than we have yet dreamed of.”

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