1899 - 1902

Anglo

War

Anglo Boer War
Home Reasons/Intro Build Up Battles / Sieges Deaths VC's Photographs

ARMOURED TRAIN DISASTER AT CHIEVELEY


So little is known by civilians of the nature and appearance of armoured trains, which played so prominent a part in the war, that a rough sketch of the  "altogether" of one of these ungainly and diabolical machines may here be given. Armoured trains are hastily constructed affairs, consisting of a locomotive and a few waggons, the engine generally being located about  the middle of the train. The waggons and locomotive are covered by boiler-plating three-quarters of an inch thick, as firmly riveted as time will allow. One of these trains was constructed at Mafeking, where there are several  railway shops, the town being on the new main line from the Cape to Buluwayo. The locomotive is the only part of the train that does not carry guns, the steel casing being solely to protect the mechanism of the engine from the  shot of the enemy. The remainder of the armour is thickly perforated with portholes, through which guns of varying calibre peep, the Maxim, Nordenfelt, and Gatling being the most serviceable weapons for this kind of work. The  smaller holes are for the rifles of the marksmen, and usually the deadliest shots in a regiment are, when possible, selected for the position. It takes an expert marksman to shoot with satisfactory results from a quickly moving  train. Usually an armoured train is also supplied with a powerful searchlight, in view of a possible nibbht attack. Of course, the boiler tubing can offer no resistance' to artillery. In fact, rifle shots fired at short range  will sometimes penetrate the plates, and to meet such a possibility sand-bags are often provided, as was the case in the Egyptian cam paign, when the Sirdar found the armoured train of great service. The man in command of an  armoured train thinks first, when an emergency arises, of his engine. So long as that remains in workable condition the odds are on his side; but once the vital parts of the locomotive are damaged, the outlook becomes serious,  for an armoured train can only carry a small body of men who would be quickly surrounded by the enemy, who might /mber hundreds or thousands. The chances are that an armoured train could not be damaged to such an extent unless  artillery, dynamite, or some equally destructive force were used.

A machine of this kind, but of third-rate pretensions, was now continually used by the troops at Frere for the purpose of discovering the whereabouts of the  enemy, and on the 15th of November an exciting and disastrous voyage was made in the "death-trap," as it was called. The troops had orders to proceed from Estcourt to Frere, and beyond if possible, to ascertain how  far the line was practicable for the passage of an army.

The crew of this train consisted of Captain Haldane (Gordon Highlanders), in command of some seventy non-commissioned officers and men of the Dublin Fusiliers,  Lieutenant Frankland, Captain Wylie, and Lieutenant Alexander, with forty-five noncommissioned officers and men of the Durham Light Infantry, and five Bluejackets under a petty officer. Mr.. Winston Spencer Churchill, who was  acting as war correspondent to the Morning Post, also accompanied the party, and in addition to him were certain railway employees to repair damages. No sooner had the train got to Frere and telegraphed "all  well" than trouble began. It started to go still farther forward, in spite of the fact that natives were seen gesticulating warnings. On reaching Chieveley Statidn, it was found that there were Boers, who had hitherto been  lying in ambush, eagerly looking out for them. These were posted in large numbers on either side of the line. Of course, the train began at once to steam back, but even as it did so a volley was poured on it from the enemy.  With hideous clatter, the bullets thudded on the iron, and several cannon began at once to play on the unlucky machine. Then, to add to its misfortunes, without pause or warning of any kind, the trucks suddenly, witli a jerk  and a crash, leapt into the air. They, at least, appeared to do so, overturning in the act, and shooting their contents helter-skelter, "like potatoes out of a sack." The words are quoted from the description of a  sufferer who himself experienced the unpleasant sensation. Several of the men were mortally injured. A platelayer was killed on the spot. The cause of the disaster was simple and easily to be explained. The Boers had laid a  trap for the train, and placed an impediment on the rails behind it, so that on its retreating journey it should become a complete wreck, and thus place the troops entirely at their mercy. And their ingenious machinations  succeeded.

The enemy, triumphant, then opened fire with a Maxim and two 9-pounders from a kopje covered with brushwood, while Boer sharpshooters hidden in dongas and behind boulders also assisted. The Dublins and Volunteers  fought gallantly; thrice they drove the enemy back, but the brave fellows, already suffering from the shock of having been shot with great force on tbe line, were from the first at a disadvantage, and unable at once to gather~  themselves together to meet the instantaneous fire of the Dutchmen. All they could do was to scramble to their feet-some were too securely jammed under the trucks to be freed, take up a position as firm as barked knees and  bruised spines would allow, and defend themselves against the sudden attack. Mr. Churchill and Lieutenant Frankland immedjately called for volunteers to help in clearing the line. Many hearty voices responded. Wildly they  worked amid a hailstorm of bullets to free the engine and remove the wreckage, Mr. Churchill, between the screams of the injured and the rattling of the rifles, rallying the men and helping them, though every moment volley  after volley picked off some of their numbers and sensibly thinned them. Some of these men were not only men but marvels; they worked with the zeal of giants and the pluck of heroes. Vigorously the Dublins and Durhams continued  to fire at the unseen enemy, while the rest of the party by sheer main force got the engine into working order, smashing everything in its way, and packing it, as tenderly as possible, with the helpless creatures whose groans  and cries were in themselves enough to make the blood of the stoutest hearts run cold. Every man seemed bent on eclipsing the courage of his comrade and following the example set by the gallant war correspondent. Sergeant  Bassett of the Dublins roared his orders with firm and steady voice, giving his men the range with an air of cool unconcern that was truly reassuring, while Wright of the Durham Light Infantry was also conspicuous. During the  turmoil he fired from the knee in the regular position, and was as calm and collected as if he had been at a rifle-range. With each shot he cracked a joke and kept his comrades from getting excited. All this time the poor  fellow was wounded, half his right ear having been shot away. Private Kavanagh, the wag of the Dublins, chaffed his comrades, telling them the Boer shells were harmless, they could hit "at all, at all!" and Corporal  Dickie, though wounded and lying on his back, continued to bellow to his mates, "Give 'em beans, boys! give 'em beans!" And meanwhile Mr. Churchill, though rained on with lead and almost stunned by the noise, was  coolly giving directions for the lifting of the wounded and for the moving of the engine. Finally, he had the satisfaction of getting the engine and tender safely charged with their mutilated human freight and started on the  melancholy return journey. Swiftly the train steamed oft; protected by the fire of Dublins and Durhams, and as it did so, Mr. Churchill, who went with it a little way, but who had stoutly refused all requests to continue  farther, returned to the help of such of the wounded as had been left behind. His noble self-sacrifice, however, was of no avail. Directly afterwards he was set on by the enemy and made a prisoner, in company with two brave  officers, Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Frankland, and fifty-eight of the wounded. The unfortunate party was then marched in the pouring rain to Colenso. On the following morning they were taken to the Boer camp before  Ladysmith, and thence via Modder Spruit to Pretoria. In the course of the journey a great concourse of persons crowded to see the captured, and in justice to the Boers it must be said that there was only one exception to  prove the rule that courtesy on all sides was observed.

An officer writing of the armoured train affair at Chieveley so well described the glorious deeds that were performed that his version was quoted even by war  correspondents. It is therefore reproduced here.

"The train," he writes, "had gone on past Frere towards Chieveley, when a party of about 200 Boers were seen evidently watering their horses. After watching them  for some time the train reversed, and went back at a fair speed. On rounding a curve, a truck containing men of the Durham Light Infantry toppled over, almost burying the inmates. Fortunately the men had room to scramble out,  although three or four had almost to be dug out before they got free. In the meantime the Boers were pouring a rifle-fire into the train, and were working their big guns and Maxim as fast as it was possible for them to load and  fire. The Dubs (Dublin Fusiliers) in the truck in wbat was now the rear of the train were firing as hard as they could, and the Naval men on an open waggon at the rear opened fire with their 7-pounder, but after about three  shots it was put out of action. Gradually all the men got out of the overturned truck, and, seeking cover behind waggons, returned the Boer fire, but the enemy was so well protected that hardly a man could be seen. It soon  became apparent that the foe being in overwhelming force and provided with heavy artillery, the best thing was to endeavour to get the road clear.

"Twenty volunteers were called for, and it was at this point that  Lieutenant Winston Churchill so distinguished himself. With the greatest coolness he superintended the operation of getting the trucks free of the line. He encouraged the men at work by walking about in the open with bullets  flying round him, and telling the working party not to mind the Boer fire, as the aim was bad. "The engine was backed and then pushed against the trucks on the line, and it was when this operation was going on that another  truck, behind which the men were firing to cover the working party, fell over and injured one or two D. L.I. seriously. They had been ordered to stand back while the engine butted against the derailed trucks, but they evidently  did not hear the order.

"After nearly an hour's hard work and harder fighting, the line was clear enough for the engine to go forward, but the waggons behind had to be uncoupled and left. The Dubs who were in them and  the Naval men, however, had got out, and had gone away in extended order, and the engine had moved on just when the line was clear.

"Captain Wyllie was shot in the thigh and dropped. Sergeant Tod, who had also been  injured in the hand, went to the Captain's assistance and built up a cover of stones as a protection against rifle-fire. Just as he was lying down a shell burst right in front, scattering the stones in all directions, and some  of the pieces struck Tod in the hip, inflicting an ugly but not a serious wound.

"The engine in the meantime had gone forward, and was brought by Lieutenant Churchill to pick up as many wounded as could be found. Captain  Wyllie and Tod were taken up on the tender, and the engine went on some distance farther, when Captain Haldane of the Gordons and Lieutenant Churchill jumped off and joined the men fighting their way back; but the Boers were  now closing all round, and the engine barely got through."

The Echo, in a leading article, spoke warmly of Mr. Churchill's exploit. It said: "In this affair Mr. Churchill, though a non-combatant, displayed  the courage of his stock, and cheered the men in the work of rescuing the wounded and the bodies of the dead, crying, 'Come on, men !' with all the courage that his father showed in political warfare or his great ancestor on the  fields of Blenheim or Maiplaquet. When the engine steamed off; Mr. Churchill remained behind to help. Every one will hope that he is not killed."

It is somewhat interesting here to note Mr. Churchill's soliloquy on his  journey in an armoured train, published in the Morning Post at the very time the noble fellow was suffering for his bravery on an identical trip. "This armoured train," he said, "is a very puny specimen,  having neither gun nor Maxims, with no roof to its trucks and no shutters to its loopholes, and being in every way inferior to the powerful machines I saw working along the southern frontier. Nevertheless it is a useful means  of reconnaissance, nor is a journey in it devoid of interest. An armoured train! The very name sounds strange; a locomotive disguised as a knight~errant-the agent of civilisation in the habiliments of chivalry. Mr. Morley  attired as Sir Lancelot would seem scarcely more incongruous. The possibilities of attack added to the keenness of the experience. We started at one o'clock. A company of the Dublin Fusiliers formed the garrison. Half were in  the car in front of the engine, half in that behind. Three empty trucks, with a plate-laying gang and spare rails to mend the line, followed. The country between Estcourt and Colenso is open, undulating, and grassy. The  stations, which occur every four or five miles, are hamlets consisting of half-a-dozen corrugated iron houses, and perhaps a score of blue gum trees. These little specks of habitation are almost the only marked feature of the  landscape, which on all sides spreads in pleasant but monotonous slopes of green. The train maintained a good speed; and, though it stopped repeatedly to question Kaffirs or country folk, and to communicate with the cyclists  and other patrols who were scouring the country on the flanks, reached Chieveley, five miles from Colenso, by about three o'clock; and from here the Ladysmith balloon, a brown speck floating above and beyond the distant hills,  was plainly visible.

"Beyond Chieveley it was necessary to observe more caution. The speed was reduced-the engine walked warily. The railway officials scanned the track and often before a culvert or bridge was traversed  we disembarked' and examined it from the ground. At other times long halts were made while the officers swept the horizon and the distant hills with field-glasses and telescopes. But the country was clear and the line  undamaged, and we continued our slow advance."

Little did he know when these thoughts passed though his busy brain that in a few days he would find himself in the State School of Pretoria, a prisoner, far from kith and  kin, and uncertain whether or not he, like others, might be tried by Judge Gregorowski, who would take a grim pleasure, as he did in the case of the Uitlanders, in sentencing him to death. On this score great anxiety was felt,  and it is no exaggeration to say that his countrymen, whether friends or strangers, were all equally regretful at his loss, and deeply anxious as to the fate that might befall so gallant a descendant of a great line.