Ernest George Dickens (1884-1954)

After six months initial training at the Woolwich Depot, Ernest was posted to Aldershot, 26 February 1900 to join 92 Battery RFA as Trumpeter. He stayed at Aldershot for eighteen months before being posted to 4th Battery RFA which was already in South Africa. He arrived there 11 November 1901 and was just 17 years old.  4th Battery had been part of the original Army Corps sent to SA in December 1899. In the autumn of 1901 the battery had become part of General Methuen's 'Column', operating inthe bleak and inhospitable Western Transvaal, seeking to engage General Koos de la Rey and his elusive Boer commandos. This was, of course, the same General Methuen whom Charles had experienced at Magersfontein; he was now older but not obviously wiser. General de la Rey had been an opposing general on the Modder River.

A mobile 'Column' would typically consist of between a few hundred and two thousand personnel made up of infantry troops, a detachment of field-guns or pom-poms, mounted infantry and scouts. It would also include wagons and ox carts for carrying food and other supplies and possibly incorporate a group of captured burghers under guard, destined for the 'refugee' camps. The column would be defended front and rear by mounted troops. By May, 1901, there were approximately 70 such columns under Kitchener's command which carried out organised sweeps across the vast areas of the country, cordoned off by fences guarded by blockhouses. For the ordinary soldier, daily life in the column was very harsh, marching all day, camping at night and always under constant threat of being picked off by an invisible sniper or rushed by a troop of armed horsemen firing from the hip.

Ernest joined 4th Battery just after it had been badly mauled in a Boer ambush on 24 October 1901, when a subsidiary of Methuen's Column commanded by Col von Donop was attacked by de la Rey's commando near the Marico. 28 soldiers were killed,including Lt Hill of the 4th Bty RFA before the Boers were driven off. A comtemporary (patriotic) account reports that "...the incomparable artillerymen of the 4th Battery and the infantry of the 'Fighting Fifth' met the Boer rush without the slightest flinching or disorder." Worse was to follow.

On 2 February 1902, the unfortunate Col. von Donop had instructed Col. Anderson of the Yeomanry to deliver a convoy of wagons to Klerksdorp under escort. The escort consisted of a small infantry force and a detachment of two guns of 4th Battery. The convoy was again attacked (at Yzer Spruit) by de la Rey and his commando and the escort routed. A report said..."the artillery men were rushed at the last, when their escort had been overwhelmed and could do nothing but surrender. In all, 58 officers and men were killed and 129 wounded. The others (199) were captured and disarmed but were speedily 'released'. The two field guns were captured.

In later life, Ernest said he had been taken prisoner by the Boers and careful analysis of military actions which involved 4th Battery in the time he was in SA, suggests that this was the most probably moment for it to have happened.

The final indignity for Lord Methuen came soon after this at Tweebosch on 7 March 1902. He was leading a column consisting of some 1 200 men and 4 guns (from 38th and 4th Batteries) which had set out to find and confront the Boers, when they were attacked by a large commando force led by de la Rey himself. Despite fierce resistance from some of his column, in which all the gunners were killed (including Lt Venning of 4th Battery), many others panicked and fled. Lord Methuen, who himself was severely wounded, surrendered.

He was the senior British general in the army in South Africa at the time and the only one to be captured by the Boers in the course of the war.

(General de la Rey, probably the best of the Boer Generals, behaved as a gentleman in victory. He insisted that Methuen should be allowed back to the British Lines, despite protests from his commando and went so far as to telegram Methuen's wife to reassure her that her husband was safe. He did, however, keep the captured guns).

For 4th Battery and for General Methuen, the result was another disaster. Methuen returned to England shortly afterwards and was given a hero's welcome on his return at Southampton.

Whether Ernest was present or not on ths dramatic occasion is uncertain but one suspects there may havae been rather more 'reveilles' and 'lights out' than 'charges' for the young trumpeter to sound in South Africa. For his service in SA, Ernest was awarded the Queen's medal and five clasps - Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Transvaal, SA 1901 and SA 1902.

Ernest stayed with 4th Battery after the end of the war and remained in South Africa until January 1904 (the last year spent with 7th Battery RFA). He was to spend the next ten years in India, becoming a sergeant with 78th Battery RFA in 1910.

                                 Charles Henry Dickens - 1939

 

France and Belgium 1915

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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