“…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

This is arguably one of the most highest decorated and bravest South African characters you’ll ever meet, a man with a true warrior’s heart.

John_Sherwood-Kelly_VC

Lt. Col John Sherwood Kelly VC, CMG, DSO.

Lieutenant Colonel John “Jack” Sherwood Kelly VC CMG DSO joined the Kings Own Scottish Borderers in July 1915 when he was a Major.  The entry into the Regimental history reflects an extraordinary character and neatly sums him up:

“A new Major has joined us. The new Major was a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

The four-times-wounded Kelly was not a Regular officer but a formidable and experienced commander with a combat record going back to the 1896 Matabele Revolt. During his military career he achieved fame and notoriety for his mixture of heroic exploits and explosive temperament.

His Story, the early years.

The twin sons John Sherwood Kelly and Hubert Henry Kelly were born on 13 January 1880 in Lady Frere in the Cape Colony in South Africa as the son of James Kelly of Irish decent. James Kelly was at one time mayor of Lady Frere and believed in justice for all and was himself a hero. On 08 December 1876 James Kelly saved the lives of 25 people when the Italian ship, SS Nova Bella, ran into trouble at the St John’s river mouth.

John (also called “Jack”) attended the Queenstown Grammar School, Dale College in King William’s Town and St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown. At school John was keener on the outdoor activities such as horse riding and boxing, in which he excelled, than school work. During this period John first lost his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, when he was only 12 and a year later in 1893 he lost his twin brother Hubert in a riding accident.

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War and the Matabele Revolt

In 1896, age 16, John enlisted in the British South Africa Police (BSAP) and saw action in the Matabele revolt in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). With the outbreak of the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) he enlisted in the Southern Rhodesia Volunteers and saw action as a Trooper in the Relief of Mafeking as a Private in Colonel Plumer’s Column.

the_boer_war-_1899_-_1902_q82962

Boer Forces with a 94 Pounder ‘Long Tom’ besieging Mafeking

On 08 January 1901 John was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Imperial Light Horse (ILH) and later joined Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts as a Lieutenant and saw action in Rhodesia, Orange Free State and Transvaal. He was twice mentioned in despatches during this time.

After the Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) John returned to civilian life were he worked in his father’s store, but this was not what John had in mind, he was a warrior at heart  – and what he does next is an extraordinary journey which sees him take part in battles all over the world.

Somaliland 

21370948_10155459206776480_6433792642172571671_n

The ‘Mad’ Mullah

Having resigned his commission he volunteered to serve with the British forces again in Somaliland for the 3rd Expedition against Haji Muhammad Abdullah Hassan (known to the British as Mad Mullah) over the period November 1902 to July 1903.

South Africa sent a British Mounted Infantry Company (141 men) from the 4th Bn The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, commanded by Captain G.C. Shakerley, and a Boer Mounted Infantry Company, known as the Somaliland Burgher Corps (100 men) commanded by Captain W. Bonham DSO.   The men brought their own horses and 50% spares for remounts.  In a strange twist, John Sherwood-Kelly joined the Boer Corps. During the period he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.

In 1904 he was reduced to a Trooper again and returned to South Africa where he worked at first as a trader and later as a recruiter of native labour in the Transkei. In 1905/6 he again saw action during the Zululand Bambatha Rebellion.

Over the period 1906 to 1912 John was involved in the family business in Butterworth which was involved in the recruiting labour for the mines.

The Irish ‘Home Rule’ Crisis 

Finding a lasting solution for the Irish crisis remained a challenge for the British and in 1910 another attempt failed. The situation deteriorated and by 1912/13 the call went out for “all unionists” to return to Ireland. Being from Irish descent John and another brother of his, Edward answered the call and travelled to Ireland where they both joined the Ulster Volunteer Force.

image

Ulster Unionists gather during the Home Rule Crisis in 1910

With war clouds gathering over Europe late 1913 and early 1914 the Irish crisis dropped on the list of priorities and by July 1914 John and Edward travelled to London. John being a man that liked adventure saw the gathering of war clouds as an opportunity for him to become involved.

John soon joined the 2nd Battalion King Edward’s Horse as a Private. With a chest full of medals it was not long before John was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. During this time John met Nellie Green and soon John and Nellie were active in the London social life.

Gallipoli Campaign and his DSO

During the Gallipoli campaign a Jack Sherwood-Kelly, would command the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and would be decorated with a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his actions.

21414688_10155459245061480_8786904573958492543_o

Kings Own Scottish Borderers on the offensive during the Gallipoli Campaign

On 21 October 1915 John’s lungs got badly burned by gas from the Turks and he was evacuated to the hospital, but returned to the frontline on 28 October. After his return John led his men to in a frontal attack to capture a Turkish trench that was threatening his own forces. Only 6 men returned and John was wounded three times. For this John was awarded the Distinguish Service Order (DSO). The first South African to be awarded the DSO during World War One.

During his leave to recover his wounds, John married Nellie on 22 April 1916. Early May 1916 saw John recalled to the front once again in command of a battalion, this time the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as part of the 29th Division preparing for the upcoming Battle of the Somme.

The Somme Offensive

In France, leading his Battalion from the front during the fighting in the Beaumont Hamel sector John was shot through the lung and he was saved by Jack Johnson until he could be evacuated back to London.

somme

Officers of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers take a tea break during the Somme Offensive

During July 1916 John and his wife Nellie embarked on a recruiting tour to South Africa where John was received as hero. On his return to England in September 1916 John immediately reported for duty. John remained in England and on 29 November 1916 received his Distinguish Service Order (DSO) from King George V.

During November 1916 John was posted to the 3rd Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borderers as a Major. Very soon after arrival requested to be transferred to the 10th Norfolk Reserve Battalion

On 01 January 1917 John Sherwood Kelly was awarded the Distinguished Order of St Micheal and St George, Third Class or Companion, post nominal CMG. It is awarded for service to the Empire, partly for his recruiting drive in South Africa.

Ypres and Passchendaele

In February 1917 John was again posted to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as Officer Commanding. Early part of 1917 saw a new British offensive in Vimmy and Arras which was followed by offensives in Ypres and Passchendaele. A smaller offensive was planned for November 1917 in the Cambrai sector, using the new weapon “the Mark 1 Tank”.

On 20 November 1917, the opening day of the first Battle of Cambrai, 87th Brigade advanced on Marcoing, three miles south-west of Cambrai. 1st Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, crossed the Canal de St Quentin by the lock east of Marcoing copse.

cambri

Men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers advancing in the Cambrai sector 20th November 1917

For his gallantry during the crossing of the canal and in leading the attack against the enemy defences on the far side, Acting Lieutenant Colonel John Sherwood-Kelly was awarded the highest accolade for bravery – the Victoria Cross. (VC)

Two companies of 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment, crossed the canal by the railway bridge at Marcoing and one at the lock by the railway station at the north-eastern outskirts of the town. During the action Sergeant C. E .Spackman was awarded the VC for attacking a machine-gun which threatened this advance.

In the same action John was also awarded the Victoria Cross (VC). His citation reads as follows:

“For most conspicuous bravery and fearless leading when a party of men of another unit detailed to cover the passage of the canal by his battalion were held up on the near side of the canal by heavy rifle fire directed on the bridge. Lieutenant Colonel Sherwood-Kelly at once ordered covering fire, personally led the leading company of his battalion across the canal and, after crossing, reconnoitred under heavy rifle fire and machine gun fire the high ground held by the enemy.

The left flank of his battalion advancing to the assault of this objective was held up by a thick belt of wire, where upon he crossed to that flank, and with a Lewis gun team, forced his way under heavy fire through obstacles, got the gun into position on the far side, and covered the advance of his battalion through the wire, thereby enabling them to capture the position.

Later, he personally led a charge against some pits from which a heavy fire was being directed on his men, captured the pits, together with five machine guns and forty six prisoners, and killed a large number of the enemy.

The great gallantry displayed by this officer throughout the day inspired the greatest confidence in his men, and it was mainly due to his example and devotion to duty that his battalion was enabled to capture and hold their objective”.

The Germans launched a counter attack which was successfully repelled by the 29th Division during which time Acting Captain A. M. Lascelles, another South African hero, of the 14th Durham Light Infantry who was also awarded a Victoria Cross (VC). John returned to a hospital in London having been gassed again.

On 11 January 1918 the London Gazette reported that John had been awarded the Victoria Cross which he received from King George on 23 January 1918 at Buckingham Palace.

North Russia

After the end of World War 1, John Sherwood-Kelly took command of the second Battalion of the Hampsire Regiment in the North Russian Campaign in July 1919.  Here he came under criticism from the British Command in Russia, firstly for withdrawing his troops from an attack against the Bolsheviks at Trotsia, he cited improper terrain to attack (it was a mash), no communication and stiff resistance from the Bolsheviks.

But the criticism did not stop there, in 1919 the British developed a new and more effective gas, they chose to trial it on the Bolsheviks. John Sherwood-Kelly was now in command of a very mixed outfit on the railway front as part of the Vologda Force, and he was ordered to carry out the attack on the Bolsheviks under the cover of a large ground discharge of this new poisonous gas.  John objected, possibly because of his experience of gas and wounds he had sustained from it, but also because he felt the objects of the raid could be achieved by other means which did not put his men to overt risk.

russia

Troops of the Hampshire Regiment in Vladivostok 1919

The gas attack did not take place, and John was relieved of his command and returned to Britain.  On arrival, he promptly went to the press and publicly criticised the British campaign in North Russia in the Daily Express and Sunday Express.

Incensed that such a highly decorated officer should be so critical, Churchill wanted an example made, and against all advise not to , John Sherwood Kelly was court marshalled on the 6th October 1919 on the grounds of contravening The Kings Regulations (which restricted officers from dealing with the media on military matters).

John pleaded guilty, but also entered a plea in mitigation, which read:

“I plead with you to believe that the action I took was to protect my men’s lives against needless sacrifice and to save the country from squandering wealth it could ill afford.”

He was found guilty and severely reprimanded. A man of very strong principle he resigned from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel just two weeks later and entered politics.

Politics

John Kelly-Sherwood stood for the Conservative Party and took part in two General Elections for the constituency of Clay Cross in Derbyshire. His controversial and outspoken style even struck a chord among hardened socialist supporters in this largely mining seat. He was defeated in the 1923 elections and again in 1924. However, true to his character, during the election rallies, Kelly again hit the national headlines having thrashed some hecklers at Langwith.

In later years, Kelly worked for Bolivia Concessions Limited building roads and railways across Bolivia and went big game hunting in Africa where he contracted malaria and died on the 18th August 1931.  He was granted a full military funeral and is buried at Brookwood Military cemetery in Surrey, England.

An incredibly brave man who stood head and shoulders above his peers, his military career and military exploits are nothing short of impressive, a proper leader of men and a pure South African warrior of the highest order. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg for anyone who wants to learn more about South Africa’s finest.


Researched by Peter Dickens with extract from The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen, The VC and GC Association in 2013, Wikipedia and Charles Ross’ article for The South African Legion with grateful thanks. Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum.

 

South African “Springboks” and Australian “Diggers” in WW1 – the origin of nicknames.

Few (if any) World War One images are available which show the unique bond shared by South African and Australian/New Zealand troops, celebrating our common camaraderie during the World War but this in one – Paris, France. September 1918. A group of Anzac “Diggers” and South African “Springboks” enjoying eating fresh fruit.

The South African soldiers where known universally as “Springboks” because of their cap badges which featured a Springbok and the motto “Union is Strength” and in Dutch “Eendracht Maakt Macht”.

The motto was that of the newly formed Union of South Africa and referred to the strength that can be obtained by combining the Boer Republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State) with the two British Colonies (Cape and Natal) – it also signified the Union of Afrikaans and English speaking South Africans in a common South African identity. The nickname “Springboks” stayed with South African servicemen and women throughout the First and Second World Wars.

This tradition was however gradually discouraged when the SADF was formed in the 1950’s and the affectionate name for South African soldiers was changed to “Troopies” (Afrikaans for Trooper) instead – the prevailing Afrikaner Nationalist politics of the day wanted to downplay South African service to the British crown in WW1 and WW2 due to prevailing anger felt by nationalists over harsh British tactics used during the Boer War.

CAP_BADGE_1ST_SA_INFANTRY_BRIGADE

Funnily, the Australian soldiers  (called “Diggers”), using typical army humour, dubbed the South African cap badge – “Goat in a Porthole”.  The Australian nickname – “Diggers” also comes from the First World War and stems from their reputation of digging trenches – General William Birdwood, the commander of the ANZAC Corps adding in postscript: “You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe” – and the nickname stuck.

“Digger” remains the nickname of an Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) soldier to this day and Australians have adopted it as part of their national value system to mean “mateship” and “pride”.

REL29538

However due to more political changes in South Africa, the erosion of the nickname in the SADF was one thing – the use of the “Springbok” in sport and other institutions was quite another and many South Africans came to associate it to Apartheid.

For this reason it’s very unlikely that modern South African soldiers will carry the nickname ever again – which is quite sad when you really think about it – as it was never intended to turn out that way and we’ve lost a nugget of heritage forged in camaraderie and war.

South African troops carry a wounded German during the Battle of Menin Road Ridge

Rare photo of frontline South Africans in World War 1, and also one which shows compassion. This photo was taken from the Battle of Menin Road Ridge on the 21st September 1917. Here four South African “Scottish” from the 4th South African Infantry Regiment are carrying a wounded German on a stretcher to a medical station. Other wounded German prisoners are seen in the foreground.

The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge 20th to 25th September 1917 was an offensive operation, part of the Third Battle of Ypres on the Western Front, it was undertaken by the British 2nd and 5th Armies in an attempt to take sections of the curving ridge, east of Ypres, which the Menin Road crossed. This action saw the involvement of the South African Brigade – along with British, Newfoundland and Australian formations.

The attack was successful along its entire front, though the advancing troops had to overcome formidable entrenched German defensive positions which included mutually supporting concrete pill-box strongpoints and also resist fierce German counter-attacks. A feature of this battle was the intensity of the opening British artillery support and “leap frog” tactic used by the British to consolidate taken ground.

The South African Brigade saw most of its action at Borry Farm, easily overrunning the German strong points, except for four pill-boxes around Potsdam House, which were eventually attacked on three sides and captured, after inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers.  The South African Brigade was also badly hit by German machine-gun fire from Hill 37, however in the end the South Africans managed to capture Bremen Redoubt and Waterend House in the Zonnebeek valley and extend a defensive flank.

Do note that the South Africans are wearing the “Murray of Atholl” (modern) kilts which was the dominant tartan worn by the South African Scottish in the 4th South African Infantry Regiment – Company A was made up of Cape Town Highlanders, Company B Transvaal Scottish and Company C was also Tvl Scottish in the main whereas Company D was made up of various caledonian regiments from the Orange Free State and Natal.

The tradition of the Murray of Atholl was carried over to The Transvaal Scottish Regiment and is still worn to this day, hopefully the SANDF will see its way clear to keeping the traditions of its fighting men and their sacrifice.

Image copyright and reference: Imperial War Museum

 

The story of Nancy the Springbok

‘Nancy’ the 4th Regiment Mascot of the South African Forces. Delville Wood. 17 February 1918. The story of Nancy is quite extraordinary.

Nancy is the only animal in military history to be accorded full funeral honours and to be buried in an Allied war cemetery. This is the story of  famous springbok mascot of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment who died of pneumonia at Hermeton in Belgium during the severe winter of 1918 during World War I.

No more appropriate mascot could have been found. The SA Brigade badge was a springbok head, surrounded by a circle with the motto: “Union is Strength – Eendracht Maakt Macht”.

At her funeral, the firing party fired their volley. As the echoes died slowly away on this quiet afternoon, the regimental bugler, Private A E Petersen, stepped forward; a few seconds later the familiar notes of the Last Post sounded. Once or twice the bugler faltered but nobody seemed to notice. Bugler Petersen sounded the last note and there were tears in his eyes as the officers saluted, then trudged back to their cold and muddy trenches around the village.

Nancy began her army career in March 1915, when her owner, Mrs McLaren Kennedy of the farm Vierfontein in the Orange Free State, took her to Potchefstroom. Nancy was the family pet and was just over a year old when Mrs Kennedy volunteered her for war service.

“I feel,” she wrote to General Tim Lukin, “that if Nancy were adopted by a South African regiment as a mascot, she would keep the memories of South Africa alive.” A few days later she had a reply. It was a telegram from General Lukin: “Delighted with your offer,” it said. “Please bring her.”

And so began Nancy’s army training. She was put in the charge of Private Petersen and during the following six months was taught to respond to all the regimental calls, as well as conduct herself with dignity on the parade ground and on ceremonial occasions.

At the beginning of September, the regiment was ordered to entrain for Cape Town prior to sailing in HMT Balmoral Castle for service overseas. Mrs Kennedy was invited to Potchefstroom to say farewell to Nancy.

On their arrival in England, the regiment continued its training, and set sail for Egypt early the following year. The heat and rolling sand dunes were more to Nancy’s liking than the English winter. At Mex Camp in Alexandria, where her unit was completing its training, Nancy was always the centre of admiring crowds.

And then one morning she failed to turn up for parade. She had parted her rope leash and was absent without leave. By midday, her disappearance was regarded as serious, she was posted up in regimental orders as AWOL, and the news of her absence had spread to all the camps in the area. That afternoon, Bugler Petersen was given a special pass to proceed to Alexandria, in case Nancy had made for the city. At sundown a despondent Bugler Petersen returned to camp, but he would not give up the search.

With Nancy still AWOL the following morning, the matter became serious – both from a sentimental and a morale point of view. All parades were cancelled and a house-to-house search was started. There had been a suspicion that Nancy may have met her end as dinner to some Egyptian family. The search ended at sundown when the men returned dejectedly to their camp. It was on the third day, as the men were parading for their midday meal, that the sound of cheering broke out in the lines. Earlier a `patrol` of skirling pipers was sent out; each piper went in a different direction into the desert in the hope that the music of the bagpipes would succeed where all else had failed. As all regimental calls in the camp had been sounded on the pipes and Nancy had already learnt how to step it out in an orderly fashion in front of the pipe band when on parade. The pipe music worked like magic.

The next moment Nancy appeared, prancing as if nothing was amiss. Where she had been remained a mystery, despite the fact that thousands of troops had kept a look out for her.

After the Egyptian campaign, Nancy accompanied the regiment to France and disembarked with them at Marseilles in April 1916. Owing to a contagious sickness which broke out on the Oriana, the regiment was put into quarantine until May, when they left for Steenwerck, the Brigade Headquarters. A month later, the regiment was moved to the village of Sailly-le-Sac, about two miles behind the front lines. It was here that Nancy, who had been under heavy fire on scores of occasions, became a casualty when the Germans began the heavy bombardments during the Battle of the Somme.

While the SA Brigade had been near Armentieres, a shell had exploded in the transport lines where Nancy had been tethered close to the Quarter Master`s store. In fright she had bolted and broken her left horn against a wall. This horn was permanently out of alignment and started to grow downwards at an angle. However, there was no sick leave for Nancy, just “light duty”. They could not give her kitchen fatigues so she was allowed to roam about the headquarters.

The highlight of Nancy’s distinguished military career and war record happened on 17 February 1918 when she attended her last ceremonial parade. She proudly led four battalions of the South African Brigade to the first Delville Wood service, prancing on her thin little legs. It’s as if she knew that she was the darling of every soldier on parade and of those they were coming to honour.

The parade was not only the last for Nancy but it was also the last for General Lukin in France.

Nancy caught pneumonia during the severe winter of that year and, although devotedly cared for by Bugler Petersen and all the medical personnel of the headquarters, died on November 26. Her death was announced in General Orders – probably the only occasion in military history that this was done. All parades were cancelled. There were only a few of the original members of the regiment still on active service and they were detailed to form the firing party.

Nancy’s head and skin were sent to London to be treated, and then dispatched to Sir William Dalrymple who had it mounted and presented to the regiment. From the wall of the Officers’ Mess at the Transvaal Scottish Regimental Headquarters, she kept a critical eye over the officers. She has since been promoted and is now a member of the War Museum in Johannesburg.

Reference SAMVOA website.  Image copyright – Imperial War Museum

South Africa’s own WW1 Flying Ace

Honouring South African heroes and this is one of South Africa’s greatest. Many people don’t know that South Africa has it’s own World War 1 flying ace and Victoria Cross winner, and this is him!

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor was the highest scoring South African ace during the First World War, claiming 54 victories. He was an engineering student at Cape Town University when war broke out, but left his studies to join the the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles, seeing action in German South-West Africa before being discharged in 1915.

After completing his studies, Beauchamp-Proctor joined the Royal Flying Corps, going to France with 84 Squadron in September 1917. He claimed his victories in 1918 and was particularly known for destroying German observation balloons. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his many victories and excellent service record after also being awarded the DSO, MC and bar, and DFC. He died in a flying accident in 1921.

Image copyright Imperial War Museum Collection.

Carrying the “Torch of Remembrance” for the South African Fallen

Probably about the most disturbing and hard hitting photograph that I am likely to post, but it brings home why we remember on Remembrance Sunday and on Armistice Day and why the date and time 11am, on the 11th day in the 11th month is so significant and what it means. This is the day and time the guns fell silent on the western front in 1918, it’s at this time on this day that we recount the massive sacrifice made in war – not just for WW1, but for all war.

This is the capture of Meteren by the 9th Division. Stretcher-bearers of the Royal Scots Fusiliers collecting the dead after The South African Brigade attack on the 20th July 1918.

It is our privilege as veterans to carry the torch of remembrance, we carry the thread that binds us all the way to these fallen South Africans lying in the mud and devastation that was World War 1.  It’s this torch that we carry that marks all of our fallen in 1918, our fallen in 1945 our fallen in 1989 and it’s the same torch that marks our fallen in 2015 – it binds everyone who has served their country – and it stands as the marker of sacrifice.  As veterans, to hold this responsibility is a great honour and we are indeed a privileged few.

Rest in Peace brothers … We WILL Remember.

Photograph – Imperial War Museum copyright.  Posted by Peter Dickens