by H W Kinsey
The young Winston Spencer Churchill, war correspondent to the London Morning Post, sailed for South Africa on the Dunnottar Castle on 14 October 1899, on the same ship which carried General Sir Redvers Buller, the newly appointed Officer Commanding all British troops in South Africa. Churchill landed at Cape Town on 1 November and left by rail at once for East London. He then proceeded by ship, the Umzimvubu, to Durban, where he landed on 4 November, 1899. Thereafter, he left immediately by train for Estcourt, the 'Front' at that stage, on the basis (as he wrote at the time) that 'As far as you can as quickly as you can must be the motto of the war correspondent'. Accordingly, prior to his capture on 15 November at Chieveley, in what became known as the Armoured Train Disaster, he must have spent almost ten days in Estcourt and also wrote at the time that 'Meanwhile we wait, not without anxiety or impatience'.
Much has been written about his capture on 15 November, 1899, when the armoured train from Estcourt was ambushed by the Boers, his imprisonment in the Staats Model School in Pretoria, his daring escape, his journey to Lourenco Marques, and his subsequent return to the British lines at Frere at the end of December of the same year. However, it does not seem to be generally known that, whilst in Estcourt prior to his capture, he had offered a monetary award to anyone who could guide him into the besieged town of Ladysmith. This has come to light in correspondence between Lt Col W Park Gray and Dr R E Stevenson in 1963. At the time of the incident related below the young Mr W Park Gray, a Natal farmer, was a trooper in E Squadron of the Natal Carbineers - the only squadron of the Regiment not besieged in Ladysmith and known as the Estcourt Squadron - under Maj (later Brig-Gen Sir) Duncan McKenzie. He soon became a non-commissioned officer, was present at the Battle of Colenso and the Relief of Ladysmith, and did very good work at Acton Holmes. Later he served as an officer in the Natal Carbineers in the Zulu Rebellion of 1906 and the German South-West African Campaign, where he finally commanded the Natal Light Horse.
There follows the contents of an account which Col Park Gray sent to
Dr Stevenson under cover of a letter, dated 19 May, 1963:-
'When the Boers invaded Natal in October, 1899, the only mounted troops in Natal at that time consisted of two British cavalry regiments, [as well as] the Natal Carbineers, the Border Mounted Rifles, Umvoti Mounted Rifles and Natal Mounted Rifles. There also arrived from Johannesburg the Imperial Light Horse. With the exception of one squadron of Natal Carbineers and one of the Imperial Light Horse the others were besieged in Ladysmith. The Estcourt Squadron of the Carbineers (I was then a member) was kept in Estcourt when the others went through to Ladysmith.
When Ladysmith was encircled our squadron and the squadron of the Imperial Light Horse were the only mounted troops available in Natal for scouting and reconnaissance work. We were provided with all the remounts that were required and were in the saddle almost continually. One day we would be scouting away beyond Bergville, the next near Weenen or Mooi River. There were several Infantry Regiments in Estcourt and Mooi River, who were doing garrison work while Buller's army was being assembled.
Rumours of all sorts were flying about and correct news impossible to obtain, when we were told that there was a war correspondent who was anxious to get into Ladysmith, then under siege, and that he was offering £200 to anyone who would guide him into the besieged town. I was a youth of 21 and being anxious not only to acquire the £200, but also to be free for a few days from the rigorous discipline in force, I went to Churchill and told him that I would like to take him into Ladysmith. I found him living in a small tent near the railway station in Estcourt. There was, then, a reversing station consisting of a triangle by means of which the engine would leave the main line, run up one side of the triangle, and down the other side and thus face the opposite direction. Churchill's tent was pitched in the centre of this triangle. When I approached him he was sitting in the tent and gave me the impression that he was a lonely young, very young, Englishman. He had a complexion that many a South African girl would envy and although four years older than I, looked to be about 17 or 18. He became very animated when I told him what I had come for, and asked what plans we should adopt. I had spent much of my youth game shooting all along the Drakensberg and knew every bit of it. I also knew well the whole of the country between Estcourt, the Drakensberg and Ladysmith. I assured him that the only danger we would encounter would be when we approached our outposts outside Ladysmith. He told me he would willingly give me £200 when we got to Ladysmith.
I then approached my commanding officer, Major Duncan McKenzie (later General McKenzie) and asked him for three day's leave. "What the Hell do you want three days' leave for when I cannot possibly spare a single man let alone you"; (I happened to be the crack shot of the Regiment, and otherwise had made a favourable impression). "There is a war correspondent who will give me £200 to guide him into Ladysmith and I can easily be back in three days". I was crestfallen when I was told that he could not spare a single man, let alone me, to lead a bloody war correspondent into Ladysmith. I think that Churchill was more disappointed that I when I told him the news.
At that time the military began sending an armoured train up to Chieveley and beyond towards Colenso. We Colonials could not understand what their object was, nor could we understand why the Boers allowed it.
One morning four of us left Estcourt at 2 a.m. to scout down to Weenen. We arrived on the hill overlooking Weenen and were eating our food at about 7 or 8 a.m. when we heard field guns firing from the direction of Chieveley. "the Boers have got that silly armoured train at last" we exclaimed, then rode leisurely back to Estcourt. We were off-saddling when the "Alarm" and the "Boot and Saddle" sounded. We flung our saddles on to fresh mounts and the composite regiment (Carbineers and Imperial Light Horse) - about 100 all told - went off at a hard gallop towards Ennersdale. We halted at the Little Bushmans railway bridge where the armoured train engine had arrived. There were wounded men on every part of the engine, even the "cow catcher". We waited there until an officer had spoken to the men on the train, then galloped on to Ennersdale and Heavitree when we engaged the Boer forces with only a few casualties on either side.
At the Battle of Colenso we were badly knocked about; ten of our fellows out of 40 engaged being casualties. My half-section, David M Gray, was killed and is buried alongside the railway line close to the spot where Churchill was taken prisoner. Churchill was afterwards given a commission in the South African Light Horse and I saw him frequently.
Should it be of interest to the archivist I would like to give my impression of the British infantry, who fearlessly attacked heavily defended positions with great loss. They were magnificent. The British cavalry, unfortunately, were ill equipped to deal with mobile forces such as our, then, enemy employed.'
After his return to Natal Churchill finally entered Ladysmith with Lord Dundonald and mounted troops on 28 February, 1900, and one wonders what might have happened had Churchill succeeded in entering Ladysmith when he had originally wished to do so.
Bibliography1 R.E. Stevenson, Correspondence with Col W. Park Grey, (unpub ms.)
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