Charles Henry Dickens (1872-1952)

War was declared on 11 October 1899. It was a war fought to determine which white authority, British or Boer, held real power in South Africa. Charles's Battery, the 65th RFA, shortly afterwards left Woolwich to become part of The Army Corps, a large expeditionary force under the command of General Sir Redvers Buller, which was dispatched from England to South Africa during Oct-Nov 1899. The 65th was a 5-inch Howitzer battery consisting of 5 officers, 194 other ranks, 162 horses and 6 guns. The Battery left England on 12 November 1899 and arrived at Cape Town on 4 December.

The 65th Battery had very little time to find its land-legs, since it was required to reinforce immediately General Methuen's Force at the Modder River Station some 600 miles north-east of Cape Town. Methuen had been instructed by Buller to execute the relief of Kimberley, the diamond city, which had been kept under siege by the Boers since 14 October. Methuen's Force, moving north from the Orange River Station had arrived by the end of November at the Modder river after minor victories against Boer forces at Belmont and Graspan. On 28 November the force pushed the Boers back over the Modder in the battle of Modder River and occupied the Modder River Station. The Boers retreated a few miles north and dug in on the plain in front of Magersfontein Kopje some twenty miles south of Kimberley. The 65th Battery arrrived at the Modder River Station after travelling by the single track rail from Cape Town across the Great Karoo. They were in time for the battle of Magersfontein which started on Sunday, 10 December, right after Church Parade.

The Battery crossed the Modder by pontoon bridge and started to shell the Boers to provide cover for the Infantry in its advance to Magersfontein. (It was said that, against all conventions, the shelling caught and killed some of the Boers still observing the Sabbath at a prayer meeting). British Intelligence was sadly lacking about the disposition and fire-power of the entrenched Boers and the next day the artillery had to shell heavily to cover the headlong retreat of the infantry. A British force of 13 000 was beaten in the open field with a loss of 200 killed and 800 wounded or captured. The unfortunate Highland Brigade was mown down by the Boers' Mauser rifles as they shot with fearsome accuracy from their concealed trench positions. As was later reported, "Only the well sustained shooting of the artillery saved the Brigade from destruction. The last event of the day was an earth-shaking salvo of lyddite from the howitzers."

65th Howitzer Battery fired 402 rounds at Magersfontein. Methuen's force retired back to the Modder River Station and the relief of Kimberley was postponed sine die. General Methuen was demoted and not allowed a further independent command in the war again.

After a dismal run of failures in the battles of December 1899, General Buller was replaced by the legendary, though semi-retired, Field Marshall Lord Roberts (of Kandahar) as Commander-in-Chief with Major General Lord Kitchener as his Chief-of-Staff. They arrived at Cape Town at the beginning of 1900; a demoted Buller was placed in charge of the troops in Natal with an urgent brief to relieve the town of Ladysmith, which the Boers had under siege and to recapture Natal for the British.

The 65th Battery became part of Roberts'  'Grand Army' whose plan it was to advance from Cape Town northwards along the railway line to the Modder river and then to proceed into the Free State and Transvaal. This was achieved. Kimberley was relieved on 15 February, Bloemfontein captured on 13 March, Johannesburg on 5 May and Pretoria on 6 June. Roberts was able to proclaim British soverignty over the 'Orange River Colony' and the 'Transvaal Colony' on 24 May and 1 September respectively.

Charles received two decorations for the part his Battery played in these proceedings. The more significant encounter was the Battle of Paardeberg, at a place between Kimberley and Bloemfontein which the Boers defended in February under the command of General Piet Cronje. A contemporary account refers to the massive bombardment of the town by the British artillery on 19 February: "Its batteries were placed in position to join in the bombardment, the 18th, 62nd and 75th Field Batteries, supporting the 65th Howitzer Battery, directing their fire upon the laager".  The bombardment went on for several days and finally on 27 February, Cronje surrendered (after most of his horses had been slaughtered by artillery fire); he and his wife were later transported to St Helena to sit out the rest of the war.

Charles received, in recogntion of his part in this, the Paardeberg clasp, to the Queen's South Africa medal. The battle was the first significant victory in the war by the British and one of the last of the great set-piece battles. A second, smaller battle was won on 10 March at nearby Driefontein. Charles received the corresponding Driefontein clasp for this. The battle opened the way for the capture of Bloemfontein a few days later.

                            Charles' medals, including The Mons Star

 The war, after the capture of Pretoria in June 1900, in the memorable words of Roberts, was "practically over". However, before the fat lady got up to sing, the remaining Boer leaders, notably President Steyn and Generals de Wet, Botha, de la Rey and Smuts, changed their tactics, and from then on engaged in co-ordinated commando raids in small, mobile untis and avoided further pitched-battles in which they had little hope of success against the superior numbers of troops at Roberts' disposal. The 'Guerilla War' had begun and it lasted till the war's weary end in May 1902. The Boers made inroads back into the Cape and Eastern and Western Transvaal and it must be surmised that Charles' two remaining clasps, 'Cape Colony' and 'Transvaal' were awarded for the Battery's part in the attritional campaigns mounted there. Unlike those awarded for action at Paardeberg and Driefontien, these clasps were not associated with single successful battles.

Charles ended the war as Battery Sergeant Major of 65th Battery; confirmed by the engraving on his Queen's SA medal:

'Queen's SA Medal to 61943 Bty Sgt Maj CH Dickens, 65th Bty RFA'

In October 1902, 65th Battery returned to Woolwich and Charles' third son, Louis Walter, was born there in September 1903. Charles remained with the 65th Battery as part of the 8th Brigade RFA at home postings (which included one at Ballinrobe in Ireland) until 4 January 1912 when he was promoted to Sergeant Major of 2nd Brigade, RFA, stationed at Chair, near Tipperary in Ireland. His daughter, Muriel, was born there in September 1913. At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, 2nd Brigade became part of the artillery of 6th Division of the British Expeditionary Force which landed in France, at St Nazaire in September 1914.

Frank John Rich Dickens 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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