1 June 2016
HMS Shark

A Jutland Victoria Cross: Commander Loftus Jones R.N.

A total of four Victoria Crosses were awarded for the Battle of Jutland, fought near Denmark on 31 May-1 June 1916. Several of them are well-known, including those to Jack Cornwell of HMS Chester and Francis Harvey of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. However, few today are aware of Commander Loftus Jones and his actions that led to the posthumous award of Britain’s highest award for valour ‘in the face of the enemy’.

Commander Loftus William Jones VC

Commander Loftus William Jones VC

Born on 13 November 1879, Loftus Jones was the second son of Admiral Loftus Jones of Petersfield in Hampshire. He would be educated at Eastman’s Naval Academy in Fareham, after which he joined the training ship HMS Britannia in 1894.

Following completion of his training, he was appointed midshipman aboard the cruiser HMS Flora in 1897. As a sub-lieutenant, he would serve aboard HMS Spiteful in 1901, later being promoted to lieutenant and command of the torpedo boat HMS Sparrowhawk in 1903. Although he had experience of serving in bigger ships, he spent much of his service aboard a succession of torpedo boats, including: HMS Success (1905-08), HMS Chelmer (1908-10) and HMS Ghurka (1910-13). However, in 1913 he was to take command of the larger HMS Linnet, a Laforey-class (or L-class) destroyer.

Promotion to commander came on 30 June 1914, when he was next given command of HMS Shark, a Acasta-class destroyer that had been launched in 1912. While in command of this vessel, Jones would lead a small flotilla of four ships against a larger force of German cruisers – who were conducting a raid on Scarborough – off the east coast of England in December 1914. He would receive much praise from Admiral David Beatty for his efforts and courage.

HMS Shark

HMS Shark

During the Battle of Jutland, Jones was again in command of HMS Shark and the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, when he confronted a number of German destroyers en route to engaging a squadron of Royal Navy battlecruisers. In the ensuing action, the Shark would be badly damaged and Jones wounded. However, the commander and his crew fought on until he was eventually forced to issue orders to his men to abandon ship. At 19:00 hours on the first day of the battle, a German submarine finally sank the battered destroyer with a torpedo. A total of eighty-five crew of the Shark perished, with a further three being wounded.

Jones was last seen attempting to hold on to a life-raft, but it is believed he finally died due to loss of blood. His body was eventually washed-up on the Swedish coast, where he was buried in the churchyard at Fiskebaksil on 24 June.

The citation for Jones’ Victoria Cross, which was published in the London Gazette of 6 March 1917, offers more details of his actions during the battle:

On the afternoon of the 31st May, 1916, during the action, Commander Jones in H.M.S. “Shark”, Torpedo Boat Destroyer, led a division of Destroyers to attack the enemy Battle Cruiser Squadron. In the course of this attack a shell hit the “Shark’s” bridge, putting the steering gear out of order, and very shortly afterwards another shell disabled the main engines, leaving the vessel helpless. The Commanding Officer of another Destroyer, seeing the “Shark’s” plight, came between her and the enemy and offered assistance, but was warned by Commander Jones not to run the risk of being almost certainly sunk in trying to help him. Commander Jones, though wounded in the leg, went aft to help connect and man the after wheel. Meanwhile the forecastle gun with its crew had been blown away, and the same fate soon afterwards befell the after gun and crew. Commander Jones then went to the midship and the only remaining gun, and personally assisted in keeping it in action. All this time the “Shark” was subjected to very heavy fire from enemy light cruisers and destroyers at short range. The gun’s crew of the midship gun was reduced to three, of whom an Able Seaman was soon badly wounded in the leg. A few minutes later Commander Jones was hit by a shell, which took off his leg above the knee, but he continued to give orders to his gun’s crew, while a Chief Stoker improvised a tourniquet round his thigh. Noticing that the Ensign was not properly hoisted, he gave orders for another to be hoisted. Soon afterwards, seeing that the ship could not survive much longer, and as a German Destroyer was closing, he gave orders for the surviving members of the crew to put on lifebelts. Almost immediately after this order had been given, the “Shark” was struck by a torpedo and sank. Commander Jones was unfortunately not amongst the few survivors from the “Shark” who were picked up by a neutral vessel in the night.

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31 May 2016
HMS Caroline

Battle of Jutland: The Commanders

The Battle of Jutland, fought 100 years ago between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet, was the largest and most important naval engagement of the First World War. Although it ended somewhat indecisively, it was perhaps a victory for Britain, since Germany had failed in its objective of breaking the dominance of the Royal Navy and its persistent blockade of German ports. Much has been written about the action, but who were the principal commanders that held the fate of the war in their hands in mid-1916?

John Rushworth Jellicoe, Royal Navy

John Jellicoe

John Jellicoe

Admiral John Jellicoe commanded the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May / 1 June 1916. He had joined the navy as a cadet in 1872, aged 13, later becoming a midshipman on the frigate HMS Newcastle two years later. Several promotions followed over the next few years, including sub-lieutenant in 1878 and lieutenant in 1880. He would find himself in action on land in 1882, when he commanded a company of the Naval Brigade during the British invasion of Egypt.

Following the Egyptian campaign, Jellicoe would become a gunnery officer, joining the staff of the gunnery school at HMS Exeter in 1884. In 1885, he would help in the rescuing of the crew of a steamer that had capsized near Gibraltar, an act for which he was awarded the Board of Trade Silver Medal. By 1891, he had been promoted to commander and was serving aboard the battleship HMS Sans Pareil, after which he also served aboard the battleships HMS Victoria and HMS Ramillies.

He was promoted to captain, in 1897, and assumed command of HMS Centurion, and acted as chief-of-staff to Admiral Edward Seymour during the Boxer Rebellion in China. It would be during this conflict that he was wounded at the Battle of Beicang, later defying the doctor’s prognosis of having fatal injuries. By 1905, he was director of naval ordnance, and promoted to rear-admiral two years later. He worked hard to modernise the Royal Navy, greatly supporting the introduction of the Dreadnought battleships and Invincible class battlecruisers.

Promotion to full admiral came in August 1914, when he was given command of the Grand Fleet. As such, he would go on to command the British fleet during the Battle of Jutland, the only full-scale clash of battleships during the war. His handling of the action has resulted in a degree of controversy, mostly due to claims he acted too cautiously and failed to pursue the German Highs Seas Fleet after it disengaged from the battle. However, he knew losing the Grand Fleet would probably lead to Britain losing the war, a gamble he simply could not take.

David Richard Beatty, Royal Navy

David Beatty

David Beatty

Admiral David Beatty commanded the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. He was younger than Jellicoe, having been born in 1871, and had joined the navy in 1884, serving on HMS Alexandra as a midshipman in the Mediterranean two years later. In 1890, while serving aboard HMS Ruby, he was promoted to sub-lieutenant, after which he attended the gunnery school at HMS Excellent before being posted to the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert in 1892.

Beatty would be present during Kitchener’s campaign to re-conquer Sudan from the Mahdists between 1896 and 1898, where he acted as second-in-command to Stanley Colville, who commanded a small flotilla of gunboats and other steamers on the Nile river. Colville, however, would be wounded early in the campaign, and so command passed to Beatty for the assault on Dongola, for which he would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Later, when Kitchener was granted permission to advance further into Sudan, Beatty again commanded a number of gunboats and was present at the decisive Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

More active service soon followed, this time during the Boxer Rebellion in China, where Beatty served aboard the battleship HMS Barfleur in 1899. The following year, he would land with 150 men in order to help defend Tientsin from the Boxers; he would later be wounded during the subsequent fighting. However, he would recover and be promoted to captain in November.

By 1910, Beatty had been promoted to rear-admiral, and was appointed to command the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron of the Grand Fleet in 1913. By the time the First World War had begun, he had again been promoted, this time to vice-admiral, and during the war he led his squadron at the actions at Heligoland Bight in 1914, Dogger Bank in 1915 and the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Unlike Jellicoe, Beatty is remembered for being a more aggressive leader, although he has received some criticism for making tactical errors at Jutland and for his lack of effective communication with the commander of the Grand Fleet.

Reinhard Scheer, Kaiserliche Marine

Reinhard Scheer

Reinhard Scheer

Admiral Reinhard Scheer commanded the German Highs Seas Fleet at the Battle of Jutland, and was, therefore, Jellicoe’s principal opponent. Scheer had joined the German navy at the age of 15, in 1879, joining the East Africa Squadron following completion of his training in 1884. During this time, he was posted to the frigate SMS Bismarck, aboard which he would be promoted to Leutnant. He would return to Germany to conduct training in torpedoes before returning to the East Africa Squadron aboard the corvette SMS Sophie.

In 1890, he again returned to Germany and took up a post as an instructor at the Torpedo Research Command in Kiel, becoming a noted specialist in torpedo weapon technology. More promotions followed, including Korvettenkapitän of the SMS Gazelle, Kapitän zur See in 1905 and command of the battleship SMS Elsass in 1907. Several years later, he was aboard the SMS Prinzess Wilhelm as chief-of-staff to Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the then commander of the High Seas Fleet. By January 1913, he was commander of II Battle Squadron of the High Seas Fleet.

Promotion to Vizeadmiral came in December of the same year, and in early 1915 he was placed in command of III Battle Squadron. However, command of the High Seas Fleet finally arrived in January 1916, when Admiral Hugo von Pohl, its previous commander, became too ill to remain in his post. Scheer, therefore, was to command the German fleet during the Battle of Jutland, following which he published his assessment of the engagement, in which he strongly urged the use of unrestricted submarine warfare as the only realistic means of defeating Britain.

Franz Ritter von Hipper, Kaiserliche Marine

Franz von Hipper

Franz von Hipper

Admiral Franz von Hipper joined the Kaiserliche Marine in 1881 as a cadet, spending time aboard the SMS Niobe and the training ships Mars and Friedrich Carl. Following completion of his naval education, he was appointed drill instructor to new recruits at the First Naval Battalion in Kiel in 1885. However, within only a few months he left to attend the Executive Officer’s school, after which he was posted to the Coastal Defence Artillery in 1886.

In March 1887, he was again posted to the Friedrich Carl as a watch officer, before serving aboard a number of other vessels, including the frigate Friedrich der Grosse. Between 1894 and 1895, he found himself serving on the battleship SMS Wörth during which time he was promoted to Leutnant, following which he commanded the Second Torpedo-Boat Reserve Division then the Second Torpedo-Boat Reserve Flotilla in 1897. Promotion to Kapitän zur See came in 1907, taking command of the cruiser SMS Gneisenau the following year. Later, in 1911, he commanded the cruiser SMS Yorck, as well as acting as chief-of-staff to Gustav von Bachmann, who Hipper would succeed as Deputy Flag Officer of Reconnaissance Forces.

During the First World War, Hipper would command a number of battlecruisers and conduct raids on British coastal towns, including Great Yarmouth, Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. He would also be present at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915 and commanded the I Scouting Group at the Battle of Jutland the following year – known as Skagerrakschlacht, or the Battle of Skagerrak in Germany.

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29 May 2016
HMS Caroline

She Fought at Jutland: HMS Caroline

As the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland – fought on 31 May-1 June 1916 – approaches, Britain has begun to remember those sailors who were present at the action, and in particular those who perished during the fighting. The battle – referred to by the Germans as Skagerrakschlacht, or Battle of Skagerrak – was the largest naval engagement of the war, fought between the Grand Fleet of the British Royal Navy and High Seas Fleet of the Imperial German Navy. There are, of course, no human veterans of Jutland who are still alive today, but there is one survivor which remains as a poignant reminder of this mighty clash of warships, HMS Caroline.

The first of eight of her class, HMS Caroline was launched on 29 September 1914, following her construction at the Cammell Laird shipyards at Birkenhead. She was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 4 December of the same year, joining the 4th Destroyer Flotilla of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow almost immediately afterwards. She began her wartime service by patrolling the North Sea searching for enemy vessels.

With a length of 446 feet, she was 41.5 feet in the beam and had a draught of 16 feet. She displaced 3,750 tons unloaded and about 4,219 tons when fully loaded. Propulsion was provided by several turbines built by the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company, allowing Caroline to reach a top speed of around 28 to 29 knots.

Initially, her armament included: two BL 6-inch MK XII naval guns, eight QF 4-inch MK V guns, two 6-pounder guns, and four 3-pounders used for protection against aircraft. Later during the war, the 4-inch guns would be removed in order to fit an additional two 6-inch guns. Caroline’s steel armour consisted of a belt of 1 to 3 inches in thickness – 2.25 inch around the magazines – while her deck was 1 inch thick.

In February 1915, Caroline was attached to the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron of the Grand Fleet, but in early 1916 she was transferred to the 4th Light Cruiser Squadron. It would be with this latter formation that she would take part in the Battle of Jutland under the command of Captain Henry Crooke. The ship would escape the worst of the battle, with only two of her 338 crew being killed during the action. In 1917, she was fitted with a platform for the launching of aircraft, being employed in the North Sea to intercept German airships en route to Britain.

Following the end of the First World War, Caroline remained attached to the 4th Light Cruiser Squadron when it was given orders to head for the East Indies. However, her life as an active warship came to an end in 1922, when she was ordered into the reserve. Fortunately, she would escape being scrapped after she was quickly put back into service in 1924, this time as a training ship for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at Belfast in Ireland. As part of this, she would have all her armaments removed, which were then employed elsewhere.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Caroline was used a depot ship for an anti-submarine striking force. Later, she was made the headquarters for the Royal Navy in Belfast, helping to support destroyers and corvettes that were employed in escorting Atlantic and Arctic convoys. She would remain in this role until the war ended in 1945, although the headquarters staff increased so much in size that many had to be accommodated off ship.

With hostilities over in late 1945, Caroline was transferred back to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, who continued to use her as a training ship until 2009. The ship, however, was not finally decommissioned until March 2011. Since then, she has been on the list of the National Historic Fleet in the United Kingdom. There was much debate as to what role this historic vessel would now undertake, but, at the time of writing, it was decided that Caroline would remain at the Alexandra Dock in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.

Restoration work was carried out in order to make her a visitor attraction for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland and beyond. In order to do this, the National Museum of the Royal Navy and the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment worked with other partners to ensure her future. A grant of £11.5 million was also made by the Heritage Lottery Fund, greatly assisting the project.

She remains the second oldest surviving ship of the Royal Navy, HMS Victory having the distinction of being the oldest.

HMS Caroline

HMS Caroline

HMS Caroline in Recent Years

HMS Caroline in Recent Years

To learn more about HMS Caroline, please visit: http://www.nmrn.org.uk/exhibitions-projects/hms-caroline

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3 April 2016

Young Douglas Haig

Most people will have heard of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who is often remembered as the ‘Butcher of the Somme’ due to the horrendously high casualty rate suffered by the British Army during the offensive in 1916. Indeed, Haig has been a controversial figure amongst historians ever since the end of the First World War, some seeing him as being out of his depth as a senior military commander, while others argue he was the man who won the war. The debate goes on to this day, with little sign of it ever coming to an end. All this, of course, is familiar to any First World War enthusiast, but few know of a young Douglas Haig’s early military career, which is the focus of the following article.

Haig was born on 19 January 1861 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the son of John and Rachel Haig, who ran a successful family whisky distillery business called Haig & Haig. He would be educated at Oxford University, where he was a member of Brasenose College and the Bullingdon Club, later playing polo for the university team. Following his education, he would join the British Army in January 1884, attending the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. On 7 February the following year, he was commissioned into the 7th Hussars as a lieutenant.

His first overseas posting came in late 1886, when he went to India with his regiment as adjutant. In this role he gained much respect from his senior officers, showing his considerable organisational skills, while also gaining a reputation for strict discipline. In January 1891, Haig was promoted to captain.

In 1892, Haig left India and returned to England with the intention of sitting his examinations for entry into the Staff College at Camberley. Unfortunately, the young captain failed the mathematics test and was refused a place. The fact that he was colour blind also contributed to his failure to gain a place, when Sir Redvers Buller refused to back him due to his eye sight.

Following this failure, Haig returned to India, but he would soon be back in England acting as aide-de-camp for Sir Keith Fraser, who, at the time, was inspector-general for the cavalry. Fraser, who liked Haig, managed to secure for him a place at the Staff College, and, in 1894, he finally achieved his allusive goal. It was shortly after this time that he became staff officer to Colonel John French, the future commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in 1914.

It would be in Sudan, during Major-General Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s re-conquest of 1896-98, that Haig would experience active service for the first time. He would be appointed as an officer in the Egyptian Army – which was made up of Egyptian, and later Sudanese, troops but commanded largely by British officers – where he would act as staff officer to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert George Broadwood, who commanded a brigade of Egyptian cavalry.

During his time in Sudan, Haig would take part in several skirmishes with the Mahdists and be present at the battles of Atbara and Omdurman. He would later be critical of Kitchener’s tactics at both battles, even going as far as to state that his superior had ‘no plan, or tactical idea, for beating the enemy’. With the Mahdists crushed and the cities of Khartoum and Omdurman back under Anglo-Egyptian control, Haig was promoted to brevet major on 15 November 1898.

In May the following year, Haig returned to England, where he was appointed as brigade-major to the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot. A month later, his rank as major was made substantive, and in September he was made Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General (DAAG). His stay in England, however, would again be short, since he was ordered to go to South Africa as Assistant Adjutant-General to French, who was now in command of a brigade being sent to fight the Boers.

Haig would see much service during the Anglo-Boer War, being present at the Battle of Elandslaagte in October 1899, after which he and French just managed to escape being stuck in Ladysmith before the siege began. When Frederick Roberts arrived to take over as commander-in-chief of British forces in South Africa, he appointed Charles Hay (the Earl of Erroll) as Assistant Adjutant-General of the cavalry division. French had hoped to appoint Haig to this position, but his subsequent protests fell on deaf ears. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Haig later heavily criticised Roberts – in a similar fashion to way in which he derided Kitchener several years earlier – describing the commander-in-chief as a ‘silly old man’ and wasteful of horses.

When Kitchener was later appointed as commander of British forces in South Africa, both French and Haig found themselves commanding a force occupying the area in and around Johannesburg in late 1900. Later, in January 1901, Haig led a column of troops in the hope of catching the Boer commander Pieter Hendrik Kritzinger. It would also be around this time that he took part in the so-called ‘scorched earth’ policy of destroying Boer farms and homesteads, as well as escorting Boer civilians into the concentration camps, which remains an extremely controversial aspect of the war to this day.

Finally, in May 1901, Haig was given command of his own regiment of cavalry, the 17th Lancers. He would also be mentioned in dispatches on four separate occasions for his services in South Africa and promoted to lieutenant-colonel in July. The award of the Companion of the Order of the Bath had already been conferred on him in November the previous year.

In 1903, Haig relinquished his command of the 17th Lancers in order to travel to India to take up the position of inspector-general of cavalry. The following year, he was promoted to major-general, becoming the youngest officer in the British Army to hold the rank at that time, and in 1906 he was appointed director of military training on the General Staff at the War Office. Our story now takes us towards the First World War, and what is the far more familiar Haig remembered by most today.

Douglas Haig in 1885

Douglas Haig in 1885

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13 March 2016

Book Review | Wellington’s Redjackets: The 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment of Foot on Campaign in South America and the Peninsula, 1805-14 by Steve Brown (2015)

Title: Wellington’s Redjackets: The 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment of Foot on Campaign in South America and the Peninsula, 1805-14
Author: Steve Brown
Publication Date: 2015
Publisher: Frontline Books
ISBN: 978-1-47385-175-7

The Peninsular War of 1808 to 1814 was, perhaps, the principal theatre of war during the wider Napoleonic Wars where Britain was able to make a significant contribution to the fight against Napoleon on land. Anyone with an interest in British history will have heard of the Duke of Wellington and his campaigns against the French in Portugal and Spain. Many will also have heard of the exploits of the legendary 95th Rifles or the almost equally famous 52nd Regiment of Foot, another light infantry unit. Numerous other regiments, of course, fought under the duke’s command during the campaign, many of which also have a rich an interesting history; yet so little is heard about them outside of official regimental histories or brief mentions in other works. Thanks to author Steve Brown, we can now learn much about the 45th Regiment of Foot, which clearly rates amongst some of the best in the Peninsula.

Although this title largely concentrates on the 45th in Portugal and Spain, the book begins with the regiment in South America, a theatre of war that still remains under-studied in the history of the Napoleonic Wars, thus offering the reader something more than just details of the fighting on the Iberian Peninsula. However, the story really begins when the regiment landed in Portugal in late 1808, after which the author chronologically examines the activities of the battalion, which remained in the Peninsula until the end of the war in 1814. (The book itself is separated into parts, each examining a full year of the war while being further subdivided into three to five chapters.) The 45th would take part in – or at least be present at –  the battles or sieges of Rolica, Vimiera, Talavera, Busaco, Fuentes D’Onoro, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Orthes and Toulouse; making it one of the most experienced of Wellington’s infantry regiments by the time of Napoleon’s first defeat. One could even argue that the 45th should take pride of place alongside the legendary 95th Rifles and 52nd Foot.

Overall the book is extremely well written and enjoyable to read. It is packed full of detail and, although there are none of the usual illustrations or images, there are many useful maps. This book should appeal to anyone with an interest in the Napoleonic Wars, and especially those with a particular enthusiasm for the Peninsular War. It deserves five out of five stars!

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8 March 2016

New Book | Pathan Rising: Jihad on the North West Frontier of India 1897-1898 by Mark Simner – Now Available for Pre-order

Pathan Rising tells the story of the large-scale tribal unrest that erupted along the North West Frontier of India in the late 1890s; a short but sharp period of violence that was initiated by the Pathan tribesmen against the British. Although the exact causes of the unrest remain unclear, it was likely the result of tribal resentment towards the establishment of the Durand Line and British ‘forward policy’, during the last echoes of the ‘Great Game’, that led the proud tribesmen to take up arms on an unprecedented scale. This resentment was brought to boiling point by a number of fanatical religious leaders, such as the Mad Fakir and the Hadda Mullah, who visited the various Pathan tribes calling for jihad. By the time the risings ended, eleven Victoria Crosses would be awarded to British troops, which hints at the ferocity and level of bitterness of the fighting. Indeed, although not eligible for the VC in 1897, many Indian soldiers would also receive high-level decorations in recognition of their bravery. It would be one of the greatest challenges to British authority in Asia during the Victorian era.

Publication Date: 21 July 2016
Format: Hardback (272 pages)
Published By: Fonthill Media

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25 January 2016

The Sudan Military Railway: A Most Effective Weapon

Few people interested in the wars and campaigns of the late-Victorian period will have failed to come across Kitchener’s re-conquest of Sudan between 1896 and 1898. Indeed, the Battle of Omdurman remains one of the most well-known actions fought during the Queen’s reign, and it made the reputation of one of Britain’s best remembered generals. However, few are aware of the Sudan Military Railway, which was so vital to the winning of the campaign, and even fewer truly understand its significance as being the most effective weapon employed against the Mahdists.

Major-General Kitchener, Sirdar of the Egyptian Army

Major-General Kitchener, Sirdar of the Egyptian Army

Following the death of Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon and the loss of Khartoum, Britain attempted to largely stay out of Sudanese affairs, showing a reluctance to confront the Khalifa and avenge the killing of their beloved general. After all, Sudan was an Egyptian problem and not one worth spilling the blood of British troops, who, inevitably, would be required in large numbers to wrestle control of the country from the fanatical Mahdists in order to restore it to Egyptian control.

A detailed account of how the British finally came to take the decision to re-conquer Sudan over a decade after its loss is beyond the scope of this short article, but needless to say the time eventually arrived when the Egyptian Government in Cairo, with the blessing and backing of the British Government in London, embarked on what would be a gradual and drawn-out operation to destroy the Mahdists and recover the lost territory. The campaign, which involved a number of actions and several major battles, effectively ended in success on 2 September 1898 at the Battle of Omdurman, although the Khalifa would not be killed until the following year. How, however, did the humble railway become key to this success?

As any student of military history will know, the issue of logistics is of paramount importance to winning any war or campaign. It is true that most are predominately drawn to the actual fighting aspect of military history, but there is usually a whole host of support mechanisms in place to supply and service the fighting troops, without which the latter could not realistically hope to operate successfully. The railway, built across Sudan, helped not only move the fighting men to and from the front, but it also kept them supplied with just about everything they needed. Traditionally in this theatre of war, supplies were transported on boats along the Nile or via camels across the desert, but the former was restricted by the numerous – and often impassable – cataracts, while the latter required an incredible number of animals to carry enough supplies to supply the 25,000 men who would eventually make up the Anglo-Egyptian army in Sudan.

The answer to Kitchener’s supply problems was, of course, to build a railway, but that in itself presented a number of huge problems that had to – one way or another – first be overcome. Firstly, many professional railroad builders in Britain believed that constructing a line across the Sudanese desert – terrain which was thought to be mostly sandy or rocky – would be totally unsuitable for the laying of track. Secondly, it was also thought that no sources of water would be found in adequate quantities in order to supply the thousands of workers required for such an ambitious project. Thirdly, no reliable maps were known to exist and so the intended route was an almost unknown. Fourthly, the territory through which the line would run was infested with hostile Mahdists, who were highly unlikely to stand and watch the invader get on with the construction unobstructed. Kitchener, however, had no intentions of letting such minor details stop him from building the line.

Kitchener turned to Édouard Percy Cranwill Girouard, a Canadian officer in the Royal Engineers who had a background as a railway builder with the Canadian Pacific Railways prior to his joining the army, after which he took charge of the Woolwich Arsenal Railway in Britain. Joining Kitchener’s expedition to Dongola in 1896, the engineer immediately set to work extending the existing line to Dongola, following the advancing troops as closely as possible. In this task he encountered a number of obstacles, chief amongst which was the poor quality of the workers at his disposal, most being unenthusiastic criminals. However, he managed to overcome his problems and greatly contributed to the success of the 1896 campaign.

Édouard Percy Cranwill Girouard, Royal Engineers

Édouard Percy Cranwill Girouard, Royal Engineers

Perhaps the real triumph of the railway, however, came in 1897 and 1898, following Kitchener’s extension of the campaign from merely occupying Dongola to the retaking of Khartoum itself, which lay much further south along the Nile. The plan was to build a new line from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamed, which would greatly reduce the line of advance by about 330 miles, since the route would be direct and not follow the winds and bends of the Nile. Girouard even travelled back to Britain in order to find suitable locomotives, carriages and other equipment to build his railway, during which he met with Cecil Rhodes who agreed to loan him several engines for no fee.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Edward Cator of the Royal Engineers had conducted a survey along the intended route, and, to Kitchener’s delight, the terrain was found to be more suitable for the laying of track than had been previously believed. The lieutenant even identified several locations where water could be found in large enough quantities to sustain the workers as they built the line.

Work on the new line commenced on 1 January 1897, the surveyors marking out the route, after which the bankmakers followed, building embankments or otherwise cutting their way along the route. Next came the platelayers, who installed the wooden sleepers upon which the tracks were laid, followed by the spiking gangs, who would spike the tracks into place to ensure they did not move. Finally, the locomotives and the wagons could move along the line carrying their precious cargoes of men, supplies and equipment. The railway even carried a number of gunboats, which were broken down into sections then reassembled further up the Nile. Due to the cataracts and other obstacles, these vessels may not have been able to play the part they did in the campaign, but the railway allowed them to bypass the blockages.

Without the railway, Kitchener would had to have relied solely on the Nile and animal transport in order to move men and supplies from Egypt to the front. Such a reliance, even if realistically possible, would have resulted in a longer campaign and possibly a greater loss of life. It is, however, thanks to Kitchener’s forceful personality and the engineering talents of Girouard that such a seemingly impossible task was completed nonetheless. It truly was the most effective weapon employed against the Mahdists during Kitchener’s re-conquest of Sudan.

Kitchener's intelligence officer, Colonel Sir Francis Wingate (left), in front of several trucks of the Sudan Military Railway

Kitchener’s intelligence officer, Colonel Sir Francis Wingate (left), in front of several trucks of the Sudan Military Railway

It is perhaps fitting to end this article with the words of Winston Spencer Churchill, who was present during the campaign in 1898:

‘In a tale of war the reader’s mind is filled with the fighting. The battle—with its vivid scenes, its moving incidents, its plain and tremendous results—excites imagination and commands attention. The eye is fixed on the fighting brigades as they move amid the smoke ; on the swarming figures of the enemy ; on the General, serene and determined, mounted in the middle of his Staff. The long trailing line of communications is unnoticed. The fierce glory that plays on red, triumphant bayonets dazzles the observer; nor does he care to look behind to where, along a thousand miles of rail, road, and river, the convoys are crawling to the front in uninterrupted succession. “Victory is the beautiful, bright-coloured flower. Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed. Yet even the military student, in his zeal to master the fascinating combinations of the actual conflict, often forgets the far more intricate complications of supply.’

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12 January 2016

Book Review | Death Before Glory by Martin R. Howard (2015)

Title: Death Before Glory: The British Soldier in the West Indies in the French Revolutionary & Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815
Author: Martin R. Howard
Publication Date: 2015
Publisher: Pen and Sword Military
ISBN: 978-1-78159-341-7

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars are amongst some of the most written about events in history. Go into any good bookshop and you will not need long to find a shelf full of books on the subject. Yet despite this fact, you might find it difficult to find a book that focusses on the campaigns fought between the British and French in the West Indies, with most writings on the subject being relegated to a chapter at best in books with a wider focus. Author Martin R. Howard, however, has thankfully produced a work to help fill this glaring gap in the current literature.

As the subtitle suggests, this book specifically examines the experiences of the British soldier fighting in the West Indies from the beginning of Britain’s involvement in the French Revolutionary Wars to the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The book itself is split into three sections, the first of which briefly examines the opposing armies, including: the British Army battalions sent to the region and the professional French soldier along with his locally raised militias and other citizen warriors. The second section considers the actual campaigns themselves in detail, which took place in and around the West Indies almost continuously throughout the wars. Finally, the author concludes his work with a number of chapters that closely examine the personal experiences of those who fought in the campaigns, shedding much light on what it was like for the ordinary men who had to endure the hardships and terrors associated with service on the islands.

At the time of writing this review, Death Before Glory is one of two Napoleonic Wars related books written by Howard, the other being Walcheren 1809: The Scandalous Destruction of a British Army, itself another understudied aspect of the wars. Like his first title, this book is easy to read and packed full of detail, making it appealing to both the general reader and military history enthusiast alike. Due to the scarcity of works on this specific subject, it should be considered a must-read for those with a serious interest in the period. Overall, the book deserves a five out of five star rating.

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