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The South Africa Medal 1853


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Taking direction from the Chairman's pinned post about expanding this section - I thought I'd post some information on one of my favourite British medals - for one of the more obscure Victorian campaigns.

The South Africa medal 1853 was given to the survivors of the Kaffir Wars of 1834-1853. The obverse, designed by William Wyon, features the diameded head of

Queen Victoria (ie: the young profile with the tiara) surrounded by the

legend VICTORIA REGINA (she was not Empress of India yet so no ET

IMPERATRIX).

The reverse, designed by Leonard Wyon (modeller and engraver to the

Royal Mint and son of William Wyon) has been the centre of some debate

and controversy over the years. Many, including Major L.L. Gordon -

author of "British Battles and Medals", thinks that it is of a lion

stooping to drink in front of a Proteus bush (a bush very common to

South Africa). In fact, according to Everson, the lion - representing

Africa - is prostrating itself in a token of submission; in heraldic

terms it is "Couchant". It is interesting to note that the

Undersecretary of State for War at the time, Sir Frederick Peel (son

of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel and brother of Sir William Peel, VC)

wrote that "I hope the Lion doing penance will not be taken for the

British Lion". I have read that some did take it for this and thus the

controversy - however this is clearly not the case.

The Kaffir Wars are some of the least known of Victorian Britain's

"small" 19th Century wars. The last of the campaigns predate the more

famous Zulu and Basuto Wars by some 20-odd years. Nevertheless,

despite not having a regiment wiped out, as at Isandhlwana, or mounting

an epic defence as at Rorke's Drift, the British soldiers and Native

levies experienced incredible hardships while fighting a well-armed,

fierce, and brave enemy. Medals were only issued to survivors and some

10 210 were issued (out of 10 500 struck).

The medal covers three campaigns: 1834-5, 1846-7, and 1850-3. There

were no bars issued for the medal and the only way of finding out which

campaign a medal was awarded for is to check the man's name on the

rolls. The exergue of the reverse is dated 1853 - the year the last

campaign ended.

The first campaign was essentially a punitive expedition. I love this

term. Essentially, the natives get uppity and the British Army is sent

in to give the buggers a good thrashing, then it's back to Pimms and

cricket. In this case the natives, under Chief Hintza, raided the

Portuguese port at Delgoa Bay in December 1834, killed the Governor and

started raiding into British Kaffraria. After a ride of 600 miles in 6

days, Sir Harry Smith arrived to put things right. By April 1835,

Hintza was captured and peace treaties were signed - Hintza is later

killed while trying to escape. The first campaign was over but native

raids continued over the next several years - and British troops saw

some action during that period.

In March 1846, 40 warriors under Chief Tola attack an escort taking a

Kaffir prisoner to trial on charges of stealing an axe. A Hottentot

prisoner to whom the other was manacled was killed, and thus began the

2nd campaign - also known as the War of the Axe (I'm not making this

stuff up - don't ever steal tools from the British Army!!) Anyway,

those pesky natives were now better armed and some were equipped as

well as the British soldiers. Two divisions were sent to Kaffirland

and encountered stronger than expected resistance. However, on June

8th the massed warriors of two tribes were caught out in the open and

suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Guanga. By November, the chiefs

started to surrender one by one, the war was felt to be over. However,

occasional raiding by natives prolongued the war until constant

patrolling, between July-October of 1847, by British regulars starved

the Kaffir tribes. The two main chiefs surrendered and the axe thief was

returned to British custody....and everything was Pimms and cricket

again.

That is until October 1850 when the Kaffir tribes began adopting an

increasingly warlike attitude. Sir Harry Smith met with the chiefs

and deposed the main instigator, Sandili. Smith returned to the Cape

convinced he had settled things. Two months later 40 settlers were

murdered and the 3rd campaign started. The Kaffir warriors escaped to

the mountains and began a 3-year campaign of hard fighting in

mountainous and wooded terrain. This made things very difficult for

the British forces but, over time, also divided the Kaffir rebels and

forced their eventual surrender in March 1853.

Of note, disaster struck British troops arriving in South Africa when the troopship Birkenhead struck a rock and sank on February 26th, 1852. The bravery and discipline of the British troops, who were told to stand fast in

ranks to allow civilians to take to the lifeboats first - and did as

they were ordered with great calmness, so impressed King William of

Prussia that he had the story read out in every Prussian barracks.

Here is the Obverse of the South Africa Medal of 1853...

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The riband for this medal is identical to that of the South Africa Medal of 1879. There was some debate, in the past, over different shades of yellow being used, but those were fairly peripheral arguments. The consensus, and the contemporary literature, supports the assertion that the two medals share the same riband.

The naming for the South Africa 1853 medal is impressed roman capitals. Private soldiers, as in this example, did not have their rank indicated.

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The story behind the medal from the previous posts.

This particular medal is named to 2652 Pte. Absalom Hale. The research is not quite as complete as I would like it to be, but I've hit a few walls so this will have to do for now.

Absalom Hale enlisted in the 2nd Regiment of Foot at Cirencester, Gloucestershire, on 8 April 1851. He was 20 years old and stood 5'7 3/8" tall. He was paid a bounty of 3 pounds/10 shillings for joining up. What I find curious about this is that the 2nd of Foot was the county regiment of West Surrey, whose main town is Guildford. Cirencester is known as the "capital of the Cotswolds" and is found in the south (I think) of Gloucester - home of the

61st Regiment of Foot. The 61st, after amalgamating with the 28th in 1881, would become the famous Gloucestershire Regiment - the Glorious Glosters. But I digress, the main question is: why did a man, presumably from Gloucestershire, enlist in Gloucestershire in a Surrey regiment? There was one other man from Cirencester who joined the 2nd that same day - so perhaps a wandering recruiting party?

The mystery of his enlistment nothwithstanding, Hale did not remain in England long. In June 1851 the 2nd Queen's embarked at Queenstown, Ireland, in 3 contingents, for the Cape Colony. The smallest group had an uneventful trip aboard HMS Cyclops, those aboard the Sumner had to fight a fire that broke out at one point, and the largest contingent - of which Pte Hale was a member - suffered "a series of mishaps" but still made it to Simon's Bay by August 8th. I can find no details as to what these "mishaps" were - but it is a bit eerie that Hale went to South Africa in the same ship, that only 6 months later was involved in one of the great maritime disasters of the 19th Century. HMS Birkenhead, which sank while rounding the Cape of Good Hope on a return journey to South Africa in February 1852. Of the 650 people on board, only 193 would survive. (The story of HMS Birkenhead's sinking is an epic tale of gallantry - a google search for "Birkenhead" brings up a number of good sites).

Once arrived in the Cape - Hale and his mates were immediately marched to King William's Town and they were in action soon after that. On September 1st, at Committy's Hill, the 2nd was confronted by a large body of Kaffirs concealed in trees. The Queen's men endured a heavy fusilade and took their first casualties. Among these were several bandsmen who were still wearing their distinctive white regimental jackets - and were singled out because the Kaffirs assumed they were of superior rank. During the Fish River operations in mid-September, the 2nd, in desperate fighting alongside the Grenadier Guards, would lose 30 killed and 17 wounded. Later on in the campaign, Hale and his fellow Queen's men would take part in mountain operations in the Kroome and Waterkloof ranges - Hale would also endure the rigours of several long forced marches.

Although by the end of 1853 the campaign was over - Hale would remain - along with the rest of his regiment - in the Cape Colony for an additional 8 years. During this period, Abasalom Hale would experience more action during the troubles on the Cape Frontier in 1856-7 and he participated in an expedition across the Orange River. At the end of this time there was no return to England - instead, Hale would be fighting again - this time in China.

Getting to China would not be much fun for Hale and his pals. They were encamped briefly in East London - in early March of 1860 - before boarding their troopships - and during this encampment a flash flood tore through the bivouacs. No casualties were sustained but every soldier suffered a heavy loss of personal possessions. There is a strong chance that Hale embarked for Hong Kong aboard HMS Vulcan, and if he did, he would have arrived safely in Hong Kong on May 7th, but not before experiencing a severe storm that drove the Vulcan far off her course. The battalion was sent to the North of China and were present at the capture of the Taku Forts. One would think, naturally, that Hale would be eligible for this bar on the China War medal of 1860. He is, however, not. He is one of only 30 men from the 2nd of Foot who were eligible only for the bar Pekin 1860. The rest of the regiment was entitled to a 2-bar medal: Pekin 1860 and Taku Forts 1860. It is surmised that he missed the action at the forts because he was either sick or on attachment to a labour party of some sort.

After the Chinese were all sorted out, the 2nd (Queen's) Regiment of Foot embarked for India for an extended stay. 2652 Pte Absalom Hale would not be joining his friends, however. Instead, he sailed from Hong Kong on HMS Indomitable and arrived in Portsmouth on 6 May 1861 - 9 years and 11 months after setting sail for Africa.

On 31 May 1861, having served the Colours for 10 years and 53 days, and in receipt of 2 Good Conduct badges (thus eligible for an extra 2 pennies' pay per day), Absalom Hale was discharged from The Queen's as a time-expired soldier.

I cannot find any listing for Absalom Hale in the 1901 Census - so he was either dead (he would be 70) or had left England to find his fortune elsewhere - perhaps one of the Colonies...maybe even Canada. Who knows.

One unfortunate note. As many of you know there was a break-in at the regimental museum of The Queen's Royal Surrey Regiment and over 1000 medals were stolen. This happened just over 2 years ago. Hale's South Africa 1853 medal is not one of those listed as stolen...but his China War medal with bar Pekin 1860 is. This is one group that will probably never be reunited and certainly never by me. The Hale China medal was seen on a dealer's list some time ago, I'm told...ahh well, hopefully someone realizes what has happened and returns it to the museum...but I won't hold my breath.

So, still some work to be done on old Absalom - but that gives you a general idea of how he spent his 10 years in uniform.

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No need to be embarrassed, Chris. The thing of it is - this campaign, while difficult and nasty - did not have an Isandlwana or Rorke's Drift to etch it into the public imagination. There was the Birkenhead disaster, of course, but not many people associate it with the campaign itself.

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