Sergeant, Ashburner’s Light Horse – Anglo Boer War
- Queens South Africa Medal with clasps Cape Colony, Orange Free State, South Africa 1901 and 1902 to 32466 Sjt. E.J. Harris, Ashburner’s L.H.
Edward Harris was born in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in about 1878, the son of William Harris and his wife Eliza Jane.
Port Elizabeth, formerly known as Algoa Bay, was a thriving sea port at the time of Harris’ birth; being the major conduit to trade with the hinterland, there was plenty of hustle and bustle on the go and life would have been interesting for a young lad.
The tempo of activity increased towards the end of the 19th century, possibly as a result of the hostilities which had broken out between the two Boer Republics to the north and Great Britain. This was on 11 October 1899 and it wasn’t long before ships bearing troops for the front along with remounts and other supplies, started to congest the harbor.
War, and the waging thereof, was on everyone’s lips and a Town Guard had already been called into being to protect the Waterworks at Van Staden’s and the lives and property of ordinary Port Elizabeth residents, from attack by marauding Boer forces who had started to infiltrate the Cape Colony with the objective of reaching the sea whilst amassing supplies and recruiting manpower from the Dutch-speaking sympathisers to their cause.
Imbued with a sense of patriotism, Harris was to bide his time before joining the war effort. Attesting for service with Ashburner’s Light Horse as a Trooper with no. 32466 on 2 March 1901 in his native Port Elizabeth. According to his attestation form he was 22 years old at the time and a Storeman by occupation. single, he gave his mother, Mrs Liza Harris, as his next of kin – resident in Nelson Street, Port Elizabeth.
Ashburner’s Light Horse was raised at Kimberley by Captain Ernest Ashburner on 23rd January 1901 for service in the Warrenton- Vryburg – Kuruman district of the far, and sparsely populated, Northern Cape – a far cry from the Port Elizabeth he was accustomed to. Details about their early period of service are sketchy but, what is known, is that Harris and others of his regiment, were taken Prisoner of War at Kuruman on 5 November 1901. The regiment was only ever 126 men strong.
Kuruman was a mission station in the Cape Colony, about 140 kilometres south-west of Vryburg. At the outbreak of war, the garrison at Kuruman was unable to retire on Kimberley as ordered; it consisted of 35 Cape Police under the command of Capt. A. Bates. Preparing the station's defences, Bates recruited 33 civilians as special police and some 60 locals for military and other duties.
On 12 November 1899, Field Cornet J.H. Visser with a force of some 200; comprising burghers from the South African Republic and Cape Rebels from the Vryburg district arrived unsuccessfully to demand the garrison's surrender; after a week of investment, the Boers retired to Phokwane.
Returning on 5 December with some 500 burghers, the siege restarted and Visser was joined by Field Cornet Wessels with some 130 rebels from Griqualand; the latter left on 26 December. Eventually, shelling from a 7 pdr cannon, which had arrived on 30 December, destroyed the garrison's defences and it was forced to surrender on 1 January 1900. Cape rebels then held the station, but it was reoccupied on 24 June 1900. This was, of course, in the build up to the skirmish in which Harris was taken prisoner – unfortunately the official accounts and popular press are silent on the actual engagement in which he took part.
Suffice it to say, he was not the only battle casualty that day – the following list of the men taken with him speaks, to some small extent, of the outcome of the skirmish which would appear to have gone the Boers way.
32526 Private Boyd, H Ashburner's Light Horse Prisoner Kuruman 05 November 1901 Released
30203 Private Grobler, N Ashburner's Light Horse Prisoner Kuruman 05 November 1901 Released
32466 Corporal Harris, E. J Ashburner's Light Horse Prisoner Kuruman 05 November 1901 Released
30987 Corporal Lamb, R. H Ashburner's Light Horse Prisoner Kuruman 05 November 1901 Released
32462 Corporal Macintosh, M Ashburner's Light Horse Prisoner Kuruman 05 November 1901 Released
32520 Lance-Corpl Parry, T. E Ashburner's Light Horse slightly wounded Kuruman 05 November 1901
30201 Private Sharpham, D. B Ashburner's Light Horse Prisoner Kuruman 05 November 1901 Released
30175 Reg. Sgt-Maj Storan, T Ashburner's Light Horse Prisoner Kuruman 05 November 1901 Released
30210 Private Templeman, A Ashburner's Light Horse Prisoner Kuruman 05 November 1901 Released
As can be determined from the above, the prisoners were soon released – this was because, at this stage in the hostilities, the Boers were not in a position to feed, clothe or house Prisoners of War – quite the contrary in fact, having dispossessed their prisoners of almost all their garments and accoutrements, they would release them on the open veld, in some cases, stark naked, so that they could find their own way back to their lines or be rescued by a passing British patrol.
On 12 February Harris, whose rise through the ranks had been swift – to Corporal and then to Sergeant – took his discharge from his unit at Port Elizabeth on 12 February 1902 – almost a year since he had enlisted. For his efforts he was awarded the Queens medal off the roll dated at Cape Town on 18 August 1902. His South Africa date clasps were issued off the 21 September 1905.
The question will, doubtless, arise as to how a man with less than 12 months service qualified for both date clasps – the answers lies in a notation that appears in the remarks column of the medal rolls – this is to effect that Harris saw previous service with the Prince Alfred’s Volunteer Guard but, in the absence of proof, I have disregarded this.
Harris’s war was over – he returned to his civilian pursuits in Port Elizabeth where, occupied as a Storeman and at the Magistrate’s Court in that city on 2 March 1904, he wed Alice Annie Sherwin. He passed away at the St. Joseph’s Nursing Home in Port Elizabeth at the age of 49 years 7 months on 15 May 1928, and was survived by his wife and two children – Ivor Harris and Mavis Harris. His death notice indicated that he was a Clerk and a Liquor Merchant, resident at Villiers Road off 3rd Avenue, Walmer and that the cause of his death at a relatively young age, was Pneumonia.
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He was doubtless extremely glad he took his discharge when he did. Some time ago, I ran across the QSA to "39644 Sjt. G.R.Downey, Ashburner's L.H." Clasps Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal. The medal was and is darkly toned, with distinct traces of Brasso on the clasps and in the impressed naming.
The dealer indicated Sjt. Downey was Killed at Klipdrift on 7/3/02; no entry in Palmer - but SAFF indicated he was "missing" at that location and on that date, and a marginal note said "Cof E states Killed". WO100/236 confirms his three clasps on the QSA and notes his mother as "Mrs. Downey of Birrell (?) cottage, Torquay". WO100/358 confirms the KSA - which is unfortunately missing. His forenames were George and Richard service in Ashburner's LH ran from 26.11.1901 to the fateful day in the Transvaal on 7/3/1902.
Stirling tells us that Ashburner's LH had 126 men present at Klipdrift/Tweebosch; losing twenty four casualties, killed, wounded and missing.
Ashburner's LH was in the advance guard of the main column. According to Lord Methuen's report in the LG of April 11, 1902, upon becoming aware of a Boer threat to the rear guard, he called Major Paris's attention to having "thoroughly reliable troops" in that position. At daybreak (about 0500) heavy fire was opened on the rear guard. Immediately, a portion of Ashburner's LH plus some artillery and some of the 5th IY extended on the flanks to protect the rear. The reinforced rear guard held the determined Boer attack until about 0630, when the rear guard was broken and "all mounted troops then in rear ... galloped in complete confusion past our left flank".
Methuen had some sharp criticism to make of the 86th Coy., I.Y. who were on the rear screen. He commented that they were ".. very much out of hand and lacking both fire discipline and knowledge of how to act. There seemed to be a want of instructed officers and N.C.O's". He did, however, comment that "The mounted troops were the best horsed force I have had under me". It would appear, however, that it was not just the IY who fled the determined Boer attack. There were brave attempts to stop the rout - but Methuen's force was rolled up in detail and Tweebosch was a first class disaster.
Clearly, I can have no idea of Sjt. G.R.Downey's movements during the unfolding disaster. However, as an experienced NCO with previous service in the Bodyguard and the KLH, it can be assumed he did his bit. Perhaps his remains are still out there; given that he was posted "Missing" and a Court of Enquiry issued it's finding as "Killed".
So, Rory, I think your man would have been quite relieved he missed the disaster at Tweebosch.