Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Winston Churchill and the Armoured Train (1899)

Receipt of 'The Churchill Factor' by Boris Johnson as a Christmas present has prompted me to update my blog with a brief report on the Armoured Train incident near Estcourt in Natal, South Africa. I visited the site a couple of months ago with a group of friends including Boer War expert Major Paul Naish.
Fort Durnford at Estcourt, Natal
In 1899 at the start of the 2nd Boer War, Estcourt was a small town of about 300 houses some 25 miles South of the main Tegula River crossing. It's importance lay in the fact that the town was still on the main Durban to Johannesburg railway line. In November the nearby town of Ladysmith was successfully invested by the Boers and Estcourt became something of a front line staging post with a mandate to maintain communications with the British garrisons at Colenso and Frere further up the line.
The Railway Line near Frere, Natal
As the Boer's consolidated their hold on Ladysmith, so the need for intelligence on their movements increased. To this end an armoured train was sent out from Estcourt daily with the intention of spotting the Boers. This was becoming a dangerous exercise. Indeed in his book 'Thank God we kept the flag flying', Kenneth Griffith recalls soldiers referring to the train as 'Wilson's Death Trap'.

Armoured Train Incident - Location Marker
At this time Winston Churchill was operating as a journalist and on the 15th Nov 1899 he managed to secure a place on the train. In his book 'Buller's Campaign', Julian Symons describes the train as an ordinary engine with roofless trucks which had been reinforced with boiler plates with loopholes cut in them for rifles. On the 15th the train was manned by a company each of the Dublin Fusiliers and the Durban Light Infantry. In addition there were a few sailors (required to man the onboard artillery piece) and some plate layers for repairs.
Paul Naish explains the Armoured Train incident
On the day of the incident the train got as far as Chieveley to the North of Frere before being ordered to turn back by Colonel Long. On the way back the train hit an ambush. Part of the train was derailed and the men came under fire from Boers armed with a Maxim and supporting Mausers. After forthright action including engineering work whilst under fire, the engine and tender were able to get back to Estcourt. Even Griffith (a stalwart admirer of the Boers) commends Churchill for his leadership during this heated skirmish.
The excat spot where Churchill was captured
Four British soldiers lie buried by the track and 70 men were taken prisoner. Churchill and Captain Aylmer Haldane were amongst this number. The spot where Churchill was actually taken is a little way from the crash location and the local landscape has been altered over the years because of groundwork undertaken by a local farmer. The line of the railway has been altered slightly too. 

Footnote: Churchill was taken to Pretoria as a POW but escaped after only four weeks. He rejoined the British forces for the rest of the War. Churchill recalled the incident in his memoirs: "Nothing was so thrilling as this: to wait and struggle amongst those clanging, rending iron boxes, with the repeated explosions of shells and the artillery, the noise of projectiles hitting the cars, the hiss as they passed in the air ... all this for 70 minutes by the clock with only four inches of twisted iron work to make the difference between danger, captivity, and shame on the one hand ... safety, freedom and triumph on the other".

For the Battle of Elandslaagte click here.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Return to the Taku (Dagu) Forts, China

A couple of years ago I found time to visit the Taku Forts area of Tianjin during a family holiday in China. Time was limited and I did not have an interpreter with me so my battlefield walk consisted of a cursory exploration of the area immediately surrounding the recently built Taku Forts Museum. Earlier this year I was invited back to China by Chinese State Television (CCTV) to re-enact my original walk (and more) for the benefit of an Asian television audience.
The view from my Hotel in Tianjin
This fantastic trip provided access to the resources I needed in order to undertake a 'proper' battlefield walk covering not only the actions at the Taku Forts but also the subsequent events in Pekin (now Beijing). I also found time to visit some truly wonderful places such as the totally bizarre Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park (covered in a previous entry). Some of the trip was tightly choreographed by the Chinese authorities whilst at other times I had a free hand with just one cameraman tracking my movements.
Filming at the Wei Bastion

My starting point was the Wei Bastion. As far as I knew this was all that remained of the largest of the forts on the south side of the Hai River (Peiho). This is the structure that has been incorporated into the new museum. It was good to meet the museum staff  although the long days of filming in the hot sun were quite demanding. In between takes I managed to get access to the local archive and although I don't speak or read mandarin some of the pictures and maps were easy to interpret.

The film Crew in action

The whole area has been transformed into a major international port. Waterways have been re-routed, land has been reclaimed and the causeways and paddy fields of the 19th century are now buried under high rise flats, fast food restaurants and urban freeways. Indeed the site of the Northern fort where the British and French troops broke Chinese resistance is now marked by a shopping mall and massive McDonalds restaurant.

In the archive I'd spotted a map which interested me. It showed the Wei Bastion as part of a string of three forts on the south side of the river. 
The Three Bastions - Southern Bank
I'd seen this on Elgin's Campaign map in the National Archives at Kew but the Chinese map was good validation. On the campaign map back in London the river was spanned by a string of submerged junks which appeared to be part bridge and part barrier. In modern Tianjin the line of these junks is now marked by a massive road bridge. 

Lunch with the Director
On the second day of filming the film crew and I crossed this bridge to visit a local restaurant for lunch. As we headed east I looked to my right and saw two areas of disturbed ground on the foreshore. My intuition told me that they were connected with the military history of this area. 

Lunch with the Crew
The Museum Director and TV personnel were adamant that there was nothing left of the Forts apart from the single bastion in the Museum grounds. Despite protestations that further investigation would be a "waste of time" and (rather mysteriously) "dangerous"  I eventually convinced my hosts that if they wanted my ongoing co-operation then they would need to let me take a walk down to these sites. I was accompanied by a mobile cameraman and some of the footage is available on You Tube (see below).

The Port Area - Hai River

Outside of the sanitised area of the Museum, the ground is blighted by industrial refuse and to get to the areas I'd seen it was necessary to pass through a wreckers yard where workers were dismantling huge sea going ships with the use of lump hammers and oxyacetylene equipment.

The Zhen Bastion
However, my intuition was right, the remains I had spotted from the road were those of the middle Bastion known as the Zhen Fort. How do I know this? When I asked my Chinese companion to interpret the words on a rusty old sign near the structure, he confirmed this site as the Zhen Bastion. Eureka!

I knew there were three Bastions originally and sure enough I could now see the final strongpoint known as 'Hai' further along the coastal path immediately adjacent to the road bridge. On the picture above the Zhen Bastion is on the right of the picture and the Hai is to the left in the distance.
The Zhen Bastion

 The Zhen Bastion had obviously gone through several iterations. The structure which I explored having navigated my way through a barbed wire fence, was early 20th century with hard protection and loop holes for heavy machine guns as well as coastal artillery.

In many ways the Hai Bastion is the most impressive. It is accessed via a causeway from the busy highway leading onto the modern road bridge. There is evidently a network of underground turrets as at several vantage points there are concrete cupolas which originally provided fire positions for various calibers of gun. The picture shows the highest cupola being used as a mooring position for a tanker in the breakers yard below.

Cupola on the Hai Bastion
I ended the day feeling pretty pleased with myself. I'd not only had a fascinating walk through territory that, in every aspect, was totally unfamiliar to me but I'd also identified and photographs important elements of the surviving sea defences on the Peiho River that would otherwise have been overlooked. The reality is that three Taku Forts remain - a somewhat surprising fact given the huge amount of development that has occurred in Tianjin Province.

The next day I explored the Northern shore. This was the area fought over in 1860 where the most Easterly Fort was the scene of a major battle in which my Great, Great Grandfather (67th Regiment) was involved. There is nothing left of the sea defences in this area. The whole topography is totally transformed by modern development.
The Hai Bastion - End of the Walk
There is plenty more to tell. After the Taku Forts, we travelled to Beijing in an hour or so using the local 300 Km Per Hour bullet train (it took Elgin two weeks to make the same trip in 1860). In a future entry I will talk about the trials and tribulations of filming in Beijing and the hugely sensitive Old Summer Palace.

For the Mystery of Thomas Strong at the Taku Forts click here.
To read about the 67th Regiment in China click here.
To read about the wonderful Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park click here.
To read my first post on the Taku Forts click here.
To watch the Tianjin Military History documentary featured in my blog click here.
To see me discovering the Zhen Bastion click here.
To see me remembering the fallen at the Taku Forts click here.
For a small number of photos from the trip click here.