The Boer War Letters of Trooper Clifford Neville Ansell
Ansell, C.N. Letters, Clippings and Ephemera Related to Trooper Ansell’s Service in South Africa with No. 79 Company Rough Riders..
Quarto. Large alphabetised cloth bound ledger bearing the title “Newspaper Cuttings” in gilt to front board. Frayed to spine, somewhat shaken and loose in its case, some damage to fore-edge of the front board, stubbornly continuing to do its duty as regards protecting its contents. Internally clean, but a trifle haphazard in its interesting mixture of tipped in clippings, letters, envelopes and ephemera, along with a number of loose letters and related clippings (including Ansell’s invitation to receive his O.B.E. in Admiralty envelope and a heartrending card from the Infant Orphan Asylum in Wanstead, London pleading assistance in the case of Clifford Neville Ansell, aged four years and resident in the Asylum after the death of his father and subsequent inability of his mother to cope), it all holds together, but navigation requires attention to detail. The majority of the letters are from Clifford in Aldershot and South Africa to his Mother (addressed to his family home, a few streets over from mine by immense coincidence, so I wandered over there with the book just to complete the circle, his street is largely unchanged except for a few additional Prius’s), but parts of the ephemera carry through to Clifford’s appointment as RFA Chief Engineer on the RFA Vessel “War Nawab” for the duration of World War 2, it’s also worth noting that Clifford Ansell is noted on the Navy List in 1919 suggesting very strongly that when King (or Queen) and Country called this particular South London boy answered swiftly.
The letters have a pleasing symmetry, the first being from Ansell’s training barracks at Aldershot on 25th March 1900 and the last, dated June 1st 1901, joyfully announces “at last we are on our way, to old England” (tipped in opposite a Standard Bank of South Africa money order for £32 back pay, suggesting Clifford was coming home with cash in his pockets). The letters in between these periods of safety encompass accounts of bad weather “We have had some rainy weather already, which almost floods us out of our tents”; celebrating the Relief of Mafeking with a rather prosaic but very welcome camp fire; his unit’s arrival at Stellenbosch Camp “We passed through Lady Grey village, where you will remember there was trouble with the rebels at the beginning of the war.”; his insistence on sending money home to assist his family “ you will please me by telling me in your next letter that not a penny of it has gone towards MY benefit, otherwise I would not have sent the same home.”; accounts of the highly effienct Boer methods of wrecking the railroads and bridges around Bloemfontein; his first taste of action and its consequences “after this engagement I witnessed the burial of two men of the Argyll & Suth. Highlanders and three men of the berkshire Regt.”; his unit’s joining up with Baden-Powell “We joined hands with ‘B.P.’ and his force from Rustenberg and the whole camp gave him a good cheering. He has just burnt 21 farms in this neighbourhood because the occupants fired on our scouts.”; Ansell was wounded in September 1900 but his concerns seem mnore for the state of his company’s mounts “Our horses too are in a very bad state. We have lost quite half of them, and we fear there are no more uits here.”; Ansells’s account of his wounding is typically understated, the letter beginning with “Do not let the above address worry you at all.” (the address in question being a military hospital in Babrberton) and continues with details of a skirmish around Middleburg “I had just sat up to get a better view. I had not fired more than 30 rounds when I was hit on the left side of the head, just above the ear.” (also tipped in is the War office telegram informing Mrs. Ansell of her son’s wounding, and a War office form regretting that they are unable to ascertain the seriousness of his wound. In November of 1900 Trooper Ansell was attached to the Imperial Light Horse “and were receiving 5 shillings per day while it lasted. I might say now that if anyone earns it, it;s us, for we are constantly on the go now.” Of particular interest is a letter detailing some inter-unit rivalries “Out here, especially amongst ‘the regulars’ the C.I.V.’s are HATED, but I put a lot of it down to jealousy. At the same time if ‘Chamberlains Innocent Victims’ are made such a fuss of, how about the others who have been all through the war and seen double the engagements?” He also states his firm intention not to join the Natal Mounted Police. In January 1901 Ansell gives a very concise and detailed account of a battle at Rietfontein on the 5th, in a copied letter, recipient unknown, with some deployment sketches showing the dispersal of forces “We rode for a 100 yards right on the top of the ridge before we dismounted and lay down. Here was the mistake, for the poor horses were standing clearly against the skyline and of course the Boers knew that we were holding the reins at their feet - of course we could not see the Boers as they were just on the slant of the ridge. I had not fired 3 shots when my horse bolted forward tugging the reins out of my hand. It had been wounded and no sooner had it got a few yards in front, it reared in the air and fell dead - In this way the majority of our horses were killed or wounded.” It continues rather hair raisingly “I saw to my surprise that the Boers were advancing, a thing they have rarely done in this campaign - I thought it was all up with me then, for these old bearded Boers rushed up to me and disarmed me of my rifle and bandolier...” Ansell goes on to describe being taken prisoner, nearly killed by British Artillery, chatting “pleasantly” with the Boers and before being casually released, given a Kruger sixpence as a souvenir of the event. As cheery as that might sound, Ansell later discover that out of his squadron of 73 men, they had lost 37 killed or wounded. The Boers numbered their casualties at 1 man killed. A deep and fascinating record of the beginning of one man’s military service, dealing with a conflict that although bloody, divisive and influential was to pale into near insignificance as the Empire was forced to retreat somewhat from its 19th century heyday towards its increasingly grim 20th century collapse, no matter how staunchly and bravely it was defended through two earth shattering conflicts by the likes of Clifford Ansell from Forest Hill.