"I will give the bally Boers beans" - Captain Marsh, M.I.D. Brabant's Horse 9 months 2 weeks ago #67161
John Marsh – Mentioned in Dispatches
Sergeant, South Notts. Hussars
Captain, Brabant’s Horse – Anglo Boer War
- Queens South Africa Medal with clasps Cape Colony, Wepener, Wittebergen and Belfast to Capt. J. Marsh, Brabant’s Horse.
One could almost say that John Marsh’s life story began in 1860 with the marriage of his mother, Mary Elizabeth Ludlow, to his father, John Thomas Marsh in Bingham, Nottinghamshire. Marsh senior was a prosperous gentleman farmer and landowner with 890 acres to his name, employing 18 labourers and 12 boys to work the land. It was into this life of upper middle- class privilege that John was born in 1867.
The 1871 England census tells us that a 4-year-old John was but one of the large Marsh family living in Scarrington, Bingham. The patriarch of the family, aged 32, had “caught” his wife young – she was a mere 22 years old and was already the mother of Anne (, Thomas (6), John (4) and Sarah (2). As was befitting a man of substance, there was a plethora of servants to cater for the family’s needs in the forms of John Goodwin, Mary Goodwin (a husband and wife ensemble); Mary Baguley and Mary Lacey.
Ten years later, at the time of the 1881 England census, John, now 13, was at a Private Boarding School along with his 15-year-old brother Thomas. The school, East Road (Mount Pleasant), was situated in New Sleaford, Lincolnshire and was under the auspices of Edwin Dibben and his wife. It was here that Marsh received the education that was to equip him for later life. On the home front the Marsh family had expanded exponentially with the addition of Elizabeth (, Henry (7), Alice (5) and baby Lois. The usual coterie of servants was in attendance but John, away at school, might well have had a fag to minister to his needs.
The 1891 England census revealed to the world that a 23-year-old Marsh had now fled the parental coop and was farming at Scarrington for his own account. Older sister Mary had come over to assume the role of housekeeper and Farm Servant William Watts helped about the place. From about this time, Marsh joined the local militia outfit, the South Notts. Hussars for peacetime service. This was, in itself, nothing unusual with most young men affiliating themselves to a militia regiment; this provided camaraderie as well as an opportunity to socialise with others of one’s age and station in life.
It wasn’t long before Marsh’s leadership qualities were recognised and he was promoted to Sergeant. Very involved in the daily activities of the S.N.H. he was ideally poised for what was to come a few years later. The British Empire was, in late 1899, on the brink of war with two recalcitrant Dutch-speaking Republics in far-away South Africa. The Transvaal and the Orange Free State, having sent an ultimatum to the British Government to which no reply was received, declared war on 11 October 1899 and their combined forces, armed and ready for combat, entered the Northern Cape and Northern Natal, investing the towns of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith as their first order of business.
Initially the British forces, augmented by a Colonial presence, were hard-pressed to counter the onslaught and, with woefully inadequate numbers at their disposal, experienced a number of reverses in what became known as Black Week. The call went out at home for the raising of additional regiments among the militia outfits and the South Notts. Hussars were quick to react. Offering themselves to the military they were soon to be disappointed when word reached them that their services would not be required.
It was then decided that four men would be sent out regardless, to join the fighting. The Nottingham Evening Post of 20 November 1899 reported on the matter thus:
“The officers of the regiment have decided to equip, and send out to the Cape, at their own cost, a small detachment, so that the regiment may not be altogether unrepresented. The detachment will sail from Southampton in the R.M.S. Norham Castle on Saturday. 15th November. The name of Trooper Hubert Parker, of the Manor House, Arnold, has now been added to those of the other three members of the regiment, Sergt. Jack Marsh, Corpl. F. Piggin and Trooper H. Piggin, who will form the detachment. As already stated, they will parade in Park-row on Friday at midday. It is understood that a large number of their comrades will also attend, mounted, to bid them a hearty au revoir.”
The same newspaper, on 24 November, carried more detail:
“Ultimately the services of Sergeant Jack Marsh (of the A or Bingham squadron) were accepted and arrangements were made to bid him farewell…… Following the arrival of the band who played a fanfare of the National Anthem and an appropriate selection, “Jeanette and Jeanot,” came that of Sergeant Marsh, who drove up from the station to join his colleagues. Conspicuous by reason of his regular uniform, with Khaki tunic and helmet, he was speedily recognized and warmly cheered, and the greetings broke out afresh when, a moment later, his three comrades made their way from Derby-road to headquarters. They were all mounted and, in their novel uniforms presented an exceedingly smart and soldier-like appearance.”
The Grantham Journal of 25 November 1899 had another take on the matter:
“SOUTH NOTTS. HUSSARS FOR THE TRANSVAAL – Nottinghamshire enthusiasm with regard to the struggle in the Transvaal has received yet further exemplification during the last few days. With characteristic loyalty several members of the South Notts. Hussars have volunteered for active service, amongst the number being Sergeant Jack Marsh, of the A or Bingham Squadron. Sergeant Marsh, who resides at Scarrington, has been connected with the South Notts. Hussars for many years.”
So there it was – a small but merry band of men from the S.N.H. were headed for the front, their grand adventure was soon to begin and, what better way to convey their experiences than from the horse’s mouth itself? Under the banner WAR LETTERS – A SOUTH NOTTS. HUSSAR AT THE FRONT, the Nottinghamshire Evening Post of 9 January 1900 carried the following:
“We make the following extract from a letter, written under date December 16th, 1899, to his wife, by Sergeant Jack Marsh, one of the four South Notts. Hussars who left Nottingham for South Africa in November last. Sergeant Marsh says: -
I have not time to say much, as we are going to East London by water, and from there by train to Queenstown. We have been attached to “Brabant’s Light Horse.” We shall be well in the fighting long before you get this. I have been wonderfully fit and well since leaving England.
We had rather a tough time the latter part of the voyage, but it made no difference to me. I am writing under great difficulties, as they are lowering ammunition into the ship just in front of me, and a lot of Kaffirs chattering all around. They are ugly bounders. I shall see you all someday. Best of luck, Merry Christmas, and now I must “git.”
In a letter to his brother, Thomas, at Aslockton, which also appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post of 9 January, he was more specific about what he was up to:
“I am writing to tell you we are going straight to the front. We are in Brabant’s Light Horse, they are close to the place where we got such a hiding the other day. We shall be well in it long before you get this. I feel fit for a really good bundle in. I have worked very hard up to now and mean to get promotion if there is any to be got. Of course I have not got any letters from England, but I have arranged with both Donald Currie’s and Post Office to send letters addressed Jack Marsh, Brabant’s Horse, to be forwarded.
I like Cape Town. It is so very English except for the thousands of Kaffirs. Remember me to all my friends, and tell them I am going strong and well, and if I don’t get a “Dum Dum” I intend to give some of them something to go on with. I hope to come back some time, when no one will be ashamed of me.”
Quite why anyone was ashamed of him is anyone’s guess but, reading between the lines of bravado, perhaps Marsh’s departure from England masked a deeper malaise.
The “Brabant’s Light Horse” referred to above was in fact, Brabant’s Horse which corps was raised and took the field in the Queenstown-Dordrecht district of the Eastern Cape. The regiment was very soon sent to hold various posts, and when General Gatacre went out to attack Stormberg, on the night of 9th December, 160 of Brabant's were intended to join the attacking force from Penhoek, but the telegram was not delivered.
On 22nd and 23rd December De Montmorency a Captain of the regiment, and his men had skirmishes near Dordrecht, in which they got the better of the enemy, who had the stronger force. Jack Marsh was once more to be relied on, in his frequent letters home, to bring the action vividly to us. Under the heading SERGEANT JACK MARSH PROMOTED – the Nottingham Evening Post of 23 January 1900 carried the following: -
“A letter dated “On the Veldt, December 24th 1899” has been received by Mr A.A. Bates, of the Chesterfield Hotel, Bingham, from Sergeant Jack Marsh, of the South Notts. Hussars, who is now serving under General Gatacre, Sergeant Marsh says:-
We have had a tough time lately. I sometimes drink water you would not like to wash your hands in, and ride all day in this African sun with hardly a mouthful of bread to eat. We sleep, when we get any, on the bare ground. We got to this place yesterday, and were riding from four o’clock in the morning till six at night. I begged a piece of bread and coffee at a farmhouse on the way.
The moment I got there I was ordered to take charge of picquets in charge of horses and patrols, and take two Cossack posts a mile out each side, as we are close to the enemy. I have been hard at it ever since. Still on duty. I have just got orders to saddle and march all night.
We expect fighting tomorrow. We are not in a very lively position. We are only about 150 here. A farmer I spoke to yesterday told me we should be absolutely murdered, but we have to get through, as we are a long way from our regiment, so we look like having a merry Christmas.
Just have to go and send fresh horse picquets to get them together. That’s done. So just a few words more. I have not had any letters from any of you, but I suppose that is because I have moved so quickly. We came by boat to East London, trained all night to Tylden Camp, but ordered away next day. I am sitting on the red hot ground, and all I have for dinner at present is a piece of bread crust and cold tea, but I am fit and well, and will give the bally Boers beans if we get at close quarters.
The excitement is fine. You don’t feel the work. I have just this moment heard I have got promoted. That is the first step, so I hope I shall get through the bounders tomorrow. Give all my love to your people. Tell them I keep smiling. Remember me to all old friends. Well, bye-bye old boy. Time is time. They want me.”
On the 28th, with some of his own scouts and some of Brabant's Horse, De Montmorency was out near Dordrecht, but little was to be seen of the enemy. On the 30th, however, there was quite a stiff little fight, in which a party of the Frontier Mounted Rifles was cut off and only rescued the following day. Captain Flanagan's company of Brabant's was said to have done very well. The corps did an immense amount of patrol work throughout January, and Captain Flanagan's company were the first troops in the Queenstown district to gain touch with the VIth Division, then approaching the Stormberg country from Cape Town via Thebus.
Again Marsh took to his pen to describe the doings of him and his comrades. Under the heading READY TO FACE THE MUSIC – the Nottingham Evening Post of 6 February 1900 reported that, Sergt. J. Marsh, writing to his brother at Thoroton, from Tylden Camp on January 10th states:-
“I have had a tremendous amount of work to get through; marched night and day for 13 days. We expected a rough time on Christmas Day. We were several days’ march from our regiment, and Boers all around. If they had attacked us as we crossed the Katburg Mountains we should have been cut to pieces. It was a grand sight to see the troops winding round the mountain passes. Some of them were very narrow. If our horses had swerved, we should have had several feet to drop.
I was in charge of the advance guard, so had to keep eyes and ears open. I have worked hard and am now Troop Sergeant, and am writing, marching or drilling morning, noon and night. I must say the men under me have worked and drilled well. While other Troop Sergeants were swearing at their men to get them together, I would only have to say now my lads fall in, and show them what we are made of, and they would do it.
One man, who I shall have a lot to tell you about, in my troop, Mike Nolan by name says, “We’ll all work for ye, and I’d die for ye Sergeant, for faith yer a man.” Poor Mike, he often gets into trouble. He is a most comical chap. It is terribly hot at times here. One day my back was so blistered while bathing all the skin came off, and my shirt stuck to my back, and I had pressing on it a bandolier full of ammunition, haversack full, and water bottle, so you can bet it was pleasant for a day or two, but I never went off duty.
Of course I told you we were in Brabant’s Horse. Colonel Brabant inspected my squadron this morning, and made some very flattering remarks to the men, and said he hoped the officers would know and do their work as well as the non-coms. I suppose we are waiting for orders from Stormberg. I hear ours will be the first squadron to face the music. Remember me to all friends. I am fit and well, and ready for business with Mr Kruger. We hear some horrible things about the Boers.”
Marsh wasn’t exaggerating about having been singled out by Colonel Brabant – the Grantham Journal of 10 March 1900 carried the news, under the banner SCARRINGTON:-
“Sergeant J. Marsh of the South Notts. Hussars, and now attached to K Squadron Brabant’s Horse at the front, writing to his mother at Thoroton, stating that soon after his promotion as Quartermaster Sergeant his General sent for him, asked him a few questions, and told him he had pleasure in promoting him to Lieutenant.”
This promotion was with effect from 1 February 1900.
But there was another account of the action the small band of South Notts. Hussars had seen – on this occasion Quartermaster Piggin wrote home from Aliwal North on 16 March 1900. The letter appeared in the Nottinghamshire Guardian of 21 April and read, in part, thus:-
“We had a battle on our arrival here. We reached here a day earlier than the Boers expected us and took possession of the bridge before the Boers had time to blow it up. I can tell you I felt a bit like a sky rocket when we galloped over the bridge, as we knew the Boers had mined it in two or three places, intending to blow it up. They opened fire with shells and tried to do damage by dropping shells under the central arch, where the chief mine was laid, but our fellows found and removed the dynamite.
After this we dismounted, took cover and advanced in skirmishing order, taking possession of every bit of cover, and gradually driving the enemy back, took his last line of hills. We lost about 50 men killed and wounded, and a lot of horses. On Sunday night we built a fort on top of a kopje and on Monday morning hoisted the first Union Jack in the Free State. We gave a hearty British cheer and then, not wishing to tempt providence, jumped down into the trenches, just in time to escape a storm of bullets.
Lieutenant Marsh was very plucky. He was in charge of K Squadron, when they were nearly surrounded, and he had orders to return. He gave the order to his men, when he found that he had left a wounded man behind, so he climbed back up the kopje, only to find that the man had received two bullets in his shoulder and head, and was just breathing his last. The man was dead. Marsh returned, mounted his horse, and galloped away, with the enemy firing from three sides at him. Luckily he escaped without a scratch, but lost his rifle and bandolier. We are all (South Notts. Hussars) in good health and spirits.” This was not be the only act of bravery Marsh was to commit, but this one did seem to go unnoticed.
Marsh and his comrades were part of the second regiment, raised in December 1899, under Lieutenant Colonel H M Grenfell, 1st Life Guards. When Colonel Dalgety was besieged in Wepener, the first and a portion of the second regiment were with him, their strength being respectively 345 and 459.
The small hamlet of Wepener is situated in the southern Orange Free State and Marsh was to play his part therein. In the beginning of April 1900 Brabant’s Horse were in and around Wepener. De Wet, the Boer Commandant most active in the area was headed that way in a drive to take the village. Other Imperial units soon joined the ranks of those holed-up in Wepener and on 3 April it was decided not to hold the east bank of the Caledon River or even the village itself, but rather to occupy a series of kopjies (small hills) some 5km to the north-west of Wepener near the western bank of the river. This was deemed to be a strong defensive position which also commanded the bridge over the river as well as the roads converging on it.
By the evening of 4 April entrenchments were being dug and scouts sent out to gather information on the Boer forces approaching to invest them. The garrison now comprised as many as 1787 men and 111 officers. The forces at Lt. Colonel Dalgety’s disposal were now dispersed with the high ground between the Ladybrand and Dewetsdorp roads with the Boer forces now numbered in the region of 6000 and, under truce, demanding the surrender of the garrison to prevent needless bloodshed – this was derisorily rejected whereafter the siege proper commenced on 9 April but not before the garrison had time to dig trenches for shelter. The only non-Colonial outfit was a detachment of the Royal Scots.
Each morning the procedure was to stand to arms at 04h00 and then return to the camps at the rear for rest and breakfast at 06h30 but on the 9th things changed! As the men returned to camp a shell burst in the Royal Scots’ camp followed by rifle fire from nearby where a group of Boers, undetected by the sentries had ensconced themselves. Fighting on the first day of the siege had begun early and continued throughout the day, being the mostly cost in terms of deaths in the whole siege. From now on the only means of communication were via heliograph.
The Boer artillery were aided by snipers who had infiltrated across the river and taken up positions from which it was hard to dislodge them. Rifle fire and artillery shells were exchanged day and night from then on, the Colonials found living in trenches an uncomfortable experience with heavy rains during the nights adding to their woes. A newspaper correspondent in the village wrote on 28 April as follows,
“After three days of mere desultory sniping and artillery fire and intense discomfort to our men in the soaked trenches from heavy rains, the Boers started heavy fire at about 06h30 on 21st from two new positions with five guns.”
The end was however, near – on the morning of the 22nd heavy gunfire was heard from the west and south and the next day the beleaguered troops noticed that the Boers were moving to engage the forces headed their way. Two days on an enormous train of wagons, carts and horsemen were seen in full retreat along the Ladybrand road. The siege was over with the outcome being regarded as indecisive by both sides.
The siege over the advance northwards began, and in the operations preparatory to the surrounding of Prinsloo, Brabant’s Horse was very frequently engaged. In the Hammonia district they had an immense amount of difficult scouting, and several times, in the latter half of May and in June, they had encounters with superior forces and rather heavy losses. On 29th June Lieutenant J S Orr was severely wounded, and other casualties were suffered in an action in which the enemy had to be driven across the Zand River.
On the 6th to 8th July at the capture of Bethlehem, on the 16th near Witnek, and on the 23rd, 24th at Slabbert's Nek, Brabant's Horse were in the forefront and gained distinction, but, as a matter of course, had to pay the price. 'The Times' historian points out that it was some "adventurous scouts" of Brabant's Horse who, by discovering on the night of the 23rd a commanding summit to be unoccupied, enabled Clements to seize the ridge at daybreak—the corps being entrusted with this task.
The 2nd Regiment was ordered to the eastern Transvaal in August, to take part under General Button in the movement from Belfast to the Portuguese border, crossing some of the most difficult country in South Africa.
Marsh served in both the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Brabant’s Horse, transferring to the 1st regiment on promotion to Captain on 1 June 1901. He resigned from the regiment on 31 December 1901 and, on 1 April 1902, assumed the role of Commandant at Sterkstroom but it was for an act of gallantry on 3 October 1901 that he was recommended for an award, whilst Station Commandant at Sterkstroom, Cape Colony, and in command of local District Mounted Troops and Scouts.
He was recommended by Lieutenant Colonel Cumming, Kaffrarian Rifles as follows:
'In action at Haasjes Kraal near Sterkstroom on 3rd October 1901. (Marsh) Hurried out with only 10 scouts to keep 50 Boers under Commandant Pretorius in check until the arrival of a local DMT. During a retirement necessitated by the enemy endeavouring to surround the small party, Captain Marsh under very heavy fire went back and brought out safely two scouts whose horses had stampeded.
During this action Commandant Pretorius and one man were killed and on arrival of local DMT the enemy were chased and eventually driven on to a post held by No. 2 DMT at Katberg Pass where 21 were captured with full equipment and horses’.
Marsh had initially been recommended to Lieutenant Colonel Cumming by Trooper G R Aspeling in a letter dated 4 January 1902: 'As Captain Marsh is no longer OC Troops here, I now feel at liberty, to personally bring to your notice, an incident which occurred during the skirmish at Hassjes Kraal on the 3rd October 1901. It was no doubt reported to you, that, when we opened fire on the Boers, at about 2000 yards range the enemy seeing our small number, several of them who were hidden in some bushes on our right front, charged us, a number of others making for a ridge on our left flank.
However, those that charged us were met with such a warm reception, one being shot within 400 yards of us, that they swerved and made for a rise on our right. Captain Marsh seeing this, immediately gave the order to mount, leaving two of us to continue firing until the men got on their horses. The Boers, seeing this movement, poured in a hot fire on three sides, some of them firing with carbines from their saddles, at very close range. It was at this stage that two of the Scouts horses stampeded, the one being hit, two men being dismounted thereby. I was one of the dismounted men and ran for some distance to try and recover my horse but seeing him run past the Boers, I had to give up the chase. I ran back to where I was before. I may state that we had no cover, the grass being burnt, with only a small ant heap here and there showing.
Captain Marsh, who had already ridden off, seeing my predicament, returned and told me to mount behind him. I was very much exhausted from running after my horse and consequently it took some time for me to mount. During this time, we were under a rather heavy cross fire from the enemy, some of the Boers being very close to us. As it was through Captain Marsh's gallant act that I escaped death or capture, I think it only right that I should acquaint you, as his immediate chief at the time, with the facts of the case’.
Men have been awarded the Victoria Cross for less but, it is speculated, the delay in recommendation may have been the reason that Marsh’s gallantry got no more than a Mention in Dispatches to go with his Queens Medal.
At some point Marsh returned to the family seat, Thoroton Hall, where, in March 1905, he took part in the Earl of Harington’s Hunt. The hounds met at Aslockton Station and Marsh, one of a large party, found a fox in the very late afternoon on the Trent Hills at Syerston. At some point he returned to South Africa, where, having come to know the Eastern Cape tolerably well, he settled in Queenstown.
The Grantham Journal of 23 August 1913 carried the news, under the banner SCARRINGTON, of his death:-
“Death of Captain J. Marsh – News has just been received of the death last month, at Queenstown, South Africa, of Captain J. Marsh aged forty-six, of Scarrington. The deceased officer went out as a Volunteer in 1900, and subsequently obtained a commission in a Colonial Corps.”
His death notice, in the South African Archives, stated that Captain John Marsh, a Retired Imperial Officer had died at Donkin Hospital in Queenstown on 24 July 1913 at the age of 42 from Cerebral Paralysis. He was married with “one at least” children and had suffered with the condition for one month.
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