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.