Was Harry Kettles the youngest Sergeant Major in the Anglo Boer War? Read on and judge for yourselves.
Harry Robert Kettles
Private, District Mounted Rifles
Private, Frontier Light Horse
Sergeant Major, Herschel Native Police
- Queens South Africa Medal with clasps Orange Free State and Cape Colony to 292 Pte. H.R. Kettles, Frontier Lt. Horse
- Kings South Africa Medal with clasps South Africa 1901 & 1902 to Serjt. Mjr. H.R. Kettles, Herschel N.P.
Harry Kettles, as he was known, was born in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape in 1884 the son of Daniel Robert Kettles and his wife Maude Jane Kettles, born Blackmore. Harry was the first born after his parent’s marriage in 1883 followed by siblings Wallace, Ernest and Bruce.
The family were resident in the Kei Road region of the Province concerning themselves, as did most settlers, with farming related pursuits.
This peaceful existence was shattered by the commencement of hostilities between the British Empire on the one hand and the two Boer Republics on the other in October 1899. Although not initially in the path of danger there was, as later events were to show, the potential for Boer forces to infiltrate these isolated settlements in their quest to conquer the Cape Colony and wrest it from the control of the British Colonial Government.
Kettles in later life
At first a very young fifteen year old Harry signed up on 6 January 1900 with the District Mounted Rifles, a forerunner of the Frontier Light Horse, for active service against any possible incursions. He was assigned no. 292.
The District Mounted Rifles, 3 squadrons strong, were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel E O Hutchinson. They operated in Cape Colony during the second phase of the war, and were in numerous little engagements and many pursuits, and frequently suffered casualties, as in the Maraisburg district in August and September 1901.
Young Kettles was to play his part in these skirmishes earning for himself the Queens South Africa Medal with clasps Orange Free State and Cape Colony. This was issued off the roll to the Frontier Light Horse; the unit the D.M.R. evolved into.
Either as a result of the fact that his father Dan was a Captain in the unit or possibly because of his ability to speak the lingo, Harry Kettles transferred himself to the Herschel Native Police on 1 February 1902. Assigned to “J” Squadron he was soon to rise to the meteoric rank of Sergeant Major at the tender age of 17 – surely this must rate as the youngest serving man in the Boer War to achieve this distinction.
Herschel, as a town, (quoting from D.B. Hook’s With sword and Statute) was a regular omnium gatherum for all sorts and conditions of men and property, and for some pathetic cases as well. The dust flew with the tread and turmoil, and the roads, veldt, and by-ways were tramped by traffic, as never happened before. Consternation prevailed many times as reports came in painting in vivid colours the encounters between the contending forces, who marshalled and counter-marched along our line, as though they could not avoid bringing the district into the field of active strife.
The district was used for British convoys, and for troops passing; and it was believed that the enemy one day would pass over the boundary, which one day happened as Boer General Smuts, with a commando of about 400 Transvalers, succeeded in crossing the Orange River during the rush of the enemy to enter the Colony, in the night, at a moment when the block-house piquets were being redistributed; but not without encountering two or three companies of the Herschel Native Police in the early morn, who intercepted them near the Witteberg Mission Station, and opened fire on them at 400 or 500 yards from a ridge of rocks with Martini rifles, on which the Transvaalers, who really did not want to fight the natives, and only wanted to get through, retreated across the Aliwal line out of the Herschel district in a most hurried manner, bending down on their saddles to escape the volleys of shots sent after them by companies, leaving several dead and wounded, and many horses, and some arms.
Hook went on to say “As I was present, I must confess that the Boers had executed a very clever crossing of the Orange River in the dark at the cattle-ford of big stones and a wide sheet of water with precipitous hills on either side, and it was a marvel to me how they succeeded in taking us by surprise; but I found that they had by strategy captured our two sentinels, and terrorised these into guides to a certain point. The embarrassment of the surprise in addition was that the guard on the Orange River at other points rushed in stating that two more commandos were coming through at two other drifts of the river, which intelligence arriving, when, as I said before, our redistribution of piquets was en -passant, leaving the Herschel Residency neighbourhood short of men, created a momentary halting in decision what to do, until I saw the Boers flying in a direction right into, as I thought, the jaws of a British column which was believed to be encamped at Tibbet's farm with cannon and mounted men, when lo ! the column had vanished, by having recrossed the Orange River the previous evening; which could be perceived by the Boers mustering out of range of our rifles on top of a rise near the farm unmolested ; I for some time waiting expecting to have a deal with the increase of Boers which had been reported by the piquets.”
Kettles served with the outfit which consisted primarily of Native volunteers, until it was disbanded on 30 June 1902 by which time the Boers had sued for peace and the war was over. For his efforts he was awarded the Kings South Africa Medal to a Sergeant Major off the Herschel Native Police roll.
With equanimity returning to the area, Kettles reverted to life in the agricultural sector and was for a lengthy time a Stock Inspector for the Government in the Kei Road area. This is also where he met and married Eileen Connellan.
The couple were to produce three daughters, Laureen Mary Ward, Nola Maude Bishop and Moira Elaine Van der Vyfer.
Harry Kettles, aged 76 years and 10 months, passed away on 5 March 1961 in the Kei Hospital, King William’s Town. He was recorded as being a Farmer prior to his death.
Once again the power of the Forum works its magic. A relative of Kettles' saw this post and made contact - he was able to provide me with a photograph of Harry as well as one of his rifle (which I haven't included here)