Yeovil and the Boer War

Yeovil and the Boer War

On 12 October 1899, following years of tension in South Africa, war broke out between the Boer Republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State and Great Britain. Within a short time, the Boers had British forces bottled up in Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking and for many months bloody battles would be fought as our army sought to raise the sieges and defeat the Boers.

Although the national and local newspapers were full of reports and stories from the battlefields, these actions were being fought thousands of miles away, Yeovilians were little affected and life went on more or less the same. However, as the weeks passed the news got gloomier following reverse after reverse as the Imperial forces struggled to break through to the towns. In December 1899, the Western Gazette’s annual concert in aid of local charities was billed as ‘A Patriotic Concert’ with the proceeds going towards the Mayor’s fund for the relief of sufferers in South Africa and was a sell-out in the Princes Street Assembly Rooms.

At the time the Patriotic Concert was being held, the British Army was suffering ‘Black Week’ when defeats were inflicted at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. The Government put out a call for men of the Volunteer Corps and Yeomanry cavalry to serve in South Africa alongside the Regular regiments and during the coming months thousands would answer the call and sail south.

Amongst the Yeovil Volunteers accepted for service were Privates F. England and H. Adams of Huish, who were given a rousing send off at the Town Station by their comrades in F Company of the Somerset Volunteers and an enthusiastic crowd of well-wishers. I cannot find out what happened to Privates England and Adams but I hope they returned safely to Yeovil.

Men from the town served in the Regular Army, including the 2nd Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy throughout the war, one of whom was a future Mayor, businessman Mr E J Farr, who would also serve and be wounded in the First World War.

During the first six months of 1900 the tide of war finally turned in Britain’s favour. The sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking were raised and, when Pretoria was occupied by the British Army on 5 June 1900, everyone thought the war would soon be over. But not quite because a bitter guerrilla war would continue for almost two more years.

On 5 November 1878 James Henry Knight was born in Park Street, the son of Huntley Knight, a cloth weaver. On 21 August 1900 James, who had now changed his first names to Henry James, was serving as a Corporal in No. 1 Company, First Battalion, The Kings (Liverpool) Regiment, 4th Division Mounted Infantry and involved in operations in an area called Van Wyke’s Vlei east of Pretoria. Corporal Knight was posted in some rocks with four men covering the right rear of a small detachment of No. 1 Company who, commanded by Captain Ewart, was holding the right of the line. Captain Ewart’s men were attacked by about fifty Boers and were in danger of being surrounded and cut off. For nearly an hour under heavy fire, Corporal Knight held his ground covering the withdrawal of the Captain’s detachment, although in the process two of his four man section were wounded. When the time came for the Corporal to pull back, he did so bringing the two wounded men, one of whom he left in a safe place and the other he carried for nearly two miles. During the whole of this time the party was under heavy rifle fire. For this act of gallantry, Corporal Henry James Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Peace finally came on 31 May 1902, and was met with great relief and rejoicing. On Monday 2 June at 6 o’clock, a thanksgiving service was held in St. John’s Church followed by a concert given by the Town Band in Sidney Gardens. The Salvation Army Band marched through the streets accompanied by ‘young men singing patriotic songs’. At dusk a bonfire was lit and a fireworks display was given in Sidney Gardens by ‘the Pierrot Masqueraders’ who had previously paraded the town with large Chinese lanterns. Houses, hotels, pubs and shops were decorated and illuminated and the Mayor’s residence, the Mansion House in Princes Street, was lit up by coloured lamps spelling the words ‘Peace’ and ‘SA’. At the Half Moon Hotel in Silver Street about 70 locals sat down to a Peace Proclamation Dinner. The Volunteer Company, led by the Cycle Section, and the Band paraded the streets.

The Boer War cost Great Britain and her Empire 5,774 killed, 16,000 died of wounds or disease and over 22,000 were wounded; the Boers lost about 7,000 dead. One of the British dead was 27 years-old Charles Dycer Gawler the son of a former Mayor of Yeovil. He had gone to South Africa in 1897 and on 31 May 1902, the day the peace was signed, he was employed as a Civil Conductor conveying stores to the 7th Company Army Service Corps at Kaal Raal in Cape Colony when he was shot and fatally wounded. Charles Dycer Gawler from Yeovil was almost certainly the last man to die in the Boer War.

In Yeovil Cemetery there is a headstone at the bottom of which there is the following memorial:

‘CHARLES DYCER GAWLER who giving his life for King and Country fell in action mortally wounded at Kaal Whaal May 31 1902 being in all probability the last killed in the South African War of 1899 to 1902’

Jack Sweet
October 2018