Sunday, December 19, 2010

Letters from South Africa

 Boer casualties at Spion Kop, 1900. From Wikipedia.

By chance recently, I happened across two letters published in the NZ Herald in November 1901, written by New Zealand servicemen in South Africa fighting the Second Anglo-Boer War. The name of this conflict has been altered lately to the "South African War" but there had been an earlier Anglo-Boer War, 1880-1881

This letter came from William Harrison, published 20 November 1901. His parents, to whom he wrote, lived in Auckland.

Some time ago, Kitchener's Fighting Scouts, 200 men and no big guns, went out on a patrol with Colonel Wilson. We left Warm Baths at four o'clock one afternoon and we marched till three o'clock in the morning. We then turned in till five o'clock, and at five o'clock we saddled up and went about four miles away from our camp, and there we met 500 Boers with 8000 head of cattle and about 50 waggons. 

The colonel gave the order to our captain to split his squadron into twenty-fives and send each troop out in different directions. As soon as we spread out the firing started, and I don't want to be in any more fights like that. When the 25 I was in reached the rise we were sent to, the Boers saw us, and inside 20 minutes there were only seven of us left to keep the fire up. One by one you would see some poor fellow get a bullet through his head or stomach or something. There was one New Zealander lying beside me. He sang out, "I've got one, all right."

I said, "Where are you shot?" 

He replied, "Through the chest," and as soon as he got the words out of his mouth, he got another one through the brain.

Out of the 25 there were five killed and 13 wounded. We were lying there for eight hours, when we could see some of the other fellows go into the laager. We went down to the laager and brought back some waggons, and got our dead and wounded. We captured 70 Boers, and killed 47 of them. Our casualties altogether were eight killed and 25 wounded. We gathered up the cattle and waggons as fast as we could and trekked back into Warm Baths. Out of the 8000 head of cattle each man that was in the fight got three head apiece.

"The Relief of Ladysmith", 1900, by John Henry Frederick Bacon. Also from Wikipedia.

The other letter appeared the day before in the Herald, which reported: "Sergeant Arthur Te Wawata  (Waata) Gannon, an ex-Auckland college boy, participating in South Africa since March of the year before last, writes from Bank's Station, Klerksdorp railway, under date August 30 last. Sergeant Gannon, who is now divisional sergeant under Colonel Porter, was recently captured by the Boers."

Our daily routine commences at one a.m. and continues up to six or seven p.m.. So you will see we have long and tedious hours, watching every moving object within the radius of miles. Our eyes are so trained that we can easily distinguish a horseman eight or nine miles distant, though cattle may be grazing about the same spot. In New Zealand one's eyesight is baffled at four miles. I have proved that when surveying on the East Coast.

The monotony of campaigning is tiresome. Much depends upon the distance we have to trek and the opposition we meet from many kopjes when en route. If our rearguard is attacked it means delay. A bad sprint to cross or soft ground for our convoy all impede our movements. Often we have to fight in the open, each man holding his own horse. It is undoubtedly a good target for the enemy, but where there are a hundred odd men in extended order facing the foe, the horse and man target frustrate them. They do not know who to draw the bead on. When our convoy has moved a considerable distance we retire, with a heavy rifle fire we cover one another in small detachments. The Boers usually take every advantage that offers and pepper us properly while on the move.

We are well mounted. I am riding a New Zealand horse of the Fourth Contingent -- a splendid beast. I have a nigger boy looking after him. He grooms and feeds my horse, and while we are trekking the boy will go to a farmhouse and comandeer mealies and green oats. The boy is named "Sausage". He washes my clothes, makes my bed and gets everything I want. I would like to take him to New Zealand when I return. I regret to say the military authorities will not allow it. To give you an idea of what a good boy he is, duty often keeps me out till late at night. I have known the lad to sit up by the fire until my return, no matter how late, and have cocoa or coffee ready for me. In this country I first prize my horse, the rifle next and then the lad who attends so well to both my horse and myself.

In the field I tell you it is marvellous to witness the brotherly feeling existing among men -- not only with our own men, but with the Boers. I have seen kind actions. I shall never forget and be ever free to narrate that when they captured me they treated me kindly. I expected them to say every moment, "Well, we are going to shoot you." There are cases, however, contrary to my experience as a captive in the hands of the Boers. 

For instance, the squadron I am in was detailed for a night march to surprise a Boer laager near Lowberg Kopje. We moved off about midnight, and at dawn sighted our field for operations. In extended order, spread out like a fan, we advanced at a fast canter towards the rugged position. When within good rifle range the Boers thought they were going to bump us off the position by opening a brisk rifle fire. We were not going to be bluffed with a few pellets. Our squadron commander, Captain Simpson, a smart, cool soldier, with an eye like an eagle, despatched men to the right and left with the order 'gallop'. The remainder advanced to the spot where the fire issued from. The cunning Boers quickly grasped the movement and made for their horses. Naturally we pursued, following them over ditches and ridges, firing from our horses, bullets cutting up the dust in all directions. We continued the pursuit of the enemy for over seven miles and captured the convoy, seven waggons, eight prisoners, horses, cattle and sheep. 

In this chase Sergeant-Major Lockett, of our squadron, was wounded. We were galloping through some underscrub and had just headed the convoy. Lockett, a particular comrade of mine, was riding a fast horse and leading. A trooper with a bit too much dash galloped right into the enemy and, let me tell you, the Boers were not slow in relieving him of all his Government property. Poor Lockett: he thought they were his own men. He halted for a second, the enemy waved him over; when he got within about 10 yards they fired -- missed him. Lockett, a game fellow from Wanganui, grasped his rifle, presented it, but the bolt would not act. The cunning Boers noticed the handicap and fired again. The explosive bullet entered poor Lockett's right arm. I miss him; we messed together.

(According to the Cenotaph database, Sergeant-Major Ernest Barnett Lockett (c.1863-1943) embarked for South Africa as a private in 1899, and was wounded in the right arm at Losburg, 23 August 1901. His right arm was amputated "when against tremendous odds he alone rushed the Boers and with great gallantry rescued a prisoner from them." For that action he received the Distinguised Conduct Medal and was invalided back to New Zealand in December 1901. After the war, he worked for the Public Works Department in Tauranga.)

You can see that on this occasion no brotherly feeling existed. The Boers -- that is, the middle-aged men -- are not cowards. The young Boers -- those about 17 or 18 -- are murderers. I generally make them sit up. I could state hundreds of cases where men having studied the position quickly have just escaped. When the enemy is about you have to be on the alert, lest they should get a sniping shot -- a thing they are prone to do. The ecstacy of the whole thing is guerilla warfare. I will admit that it is great fun, but one does not like galloping into action of a cold morning. To be warmed up a bit is like a meal to us. We will then tackle anything. A peculiarity I have noticed is that under fire one gets very thirsty. I daresay the excitement causes this. If a man is wounded or dying he will ask for water.

All Boers that we capture give us credit that we can ride and fight, and when that admission is made by a Dutchman it means a lot. To see us catch and ride a buck-jumper takes the wind out of their sails, and when we tell them that our best riders have remained at home in New Zealand, it fairly surprises them. The Boers are very ignorant. They seem to think we are wild men. Whether we be wild or tame, I am satisfied the New Zealanders are better than the Dutchmen, and can surprise them, though it must be understood they are hard to take by surprise. On several occasions we have done it before they have been able to grasp a rifle or show fight. On other occasions we have captured them at dinner, and having done so we have made them stand up, and we sat down in their places and indulged in a splendid repast.

There is not much ceremony now in dealing with the Boers. At first I was too ladylike. If I want information from a Boer or Kaffir I threaten to shoot him. It is all in the game, and so long as they persist to fight in a hopeless cause Maorilanders will shake them up.

At present we are operating around the Vaal River, near Vreeniging Station, whilst parties of the newly-formed Armed Constabulary are building blockhouses on the high, commanding kopjes. Only to-day (August 30) I was watching the heliograph from the summit of Losberg kopje, about 30 miles distant. It is undoubtedly a wonderful instrument, and though I am not a general I really approve of these heights being held by our men, because I have often had the risky mission of scouting such ground. Blockhouses are now being built all over the country, with about a hundred odd men in reach, well provisioned. There are formidable wire entanglements surrounding the stronghold. The flashlight being used by night and the heliograph by day, a chain of communication is continually kept up. Columns therefore operating in the various districts are quickly notified of the movements of the marauding Boers. It is cheerful, too, to think that in these blockhouses a small British party has always a stronghold to retire to.

To-day (August 30) we are going out from camp to fight a few snipers that are annoying the outpost. We will destroy the farms. The women will be taken and handed over to the women's laager, on the line of communication, as we expect to strike the line again near Vreeniging for supplies. It is rumoured that we will trek in the direction of Heidelberg. This month we have done good work, our small mobile column capturing 60 odd prisoners of war, also rifles, bandoliers, ammunition, waggons, cattle, sheep etc. Last month this small column of Colonel Garrett's was second on the list for captures. The Cape papers praise the New Zealanders. One paper states that the New Zealanders will fight the Boers in the open and then mount and give them chase.

We are glad that we have Colonel Porter with us. He is very popular, doing all he can for his men, and as an officer in the field, or in any other capacity, he is greatly appreciated. I think he has arranged for those of the Fourth and Fifth New Zealand Regiments that they need only serve with the Seventh Contingent for six months, instead of 12, as formerly arranged. If this be correct, then all old contingents will be delighted. We understood when we left our respective regiments to join the Seventh Contingent that the time would be only six months. As one cannot get his discharge in this country, I intend to leave about the end of December.
It appears that Arthur Te Waata Gannon may have been the same person as "Wata Gannon", born c.1878, described in March 1900 when he signed up as a private for the Gisborne section of the fourth contingent as a "native of the East Coast." He was a surveyor's assistant, giving his home address at the time as Ponsonby, and seems to have been a son of Michael Joseph Gannon, a Maori interpreter and later mining agent, and Kate Wylie of Ngati Kaipoho, Poverty Bay. Later in 1900, he was promoted to lance-corporal. Another of Arthur's letters home is here.  After the war, he worked as a clerk in Wellington, and filed for bankruptcy in October 1905. In the Maori Pioneer Battalion during World War I, he joined as part of the 13th reinforcements, and was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in December 1916. When he returned from that war, he took up in business as a carrier in Wellington, but went bankrupt again in 1919. After that, I have no idea what happened to him.


  1. Fascinating letters Lisa... thanks for sharing. Just makes me appreciate not having to fight in a war and seeing mates killed and always such a waste of life.

  2. What a fascinating read. Arthur Gannon is my grandfather.

    Narelle Gannon

  3. Thanks for your comment, Narelle. Always great hearing from descendants.