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    The Boers, under General Ben Viljoen, launched an early morning sortie against a British garrison on the strategic crossroads at Helvetia. The British were complacent in their defences, having all but assumed that the war was over and that they would soon be redeployed to India after some much needed leave.


    Most officers on site were so nonchalant about their task that they blatantly ignored instructions from their Headquarters and did not prepare adequate defence structures or instil any level of discipline amongst their troops. Manning any static position is a rather boring task for the majority of the time.


    The officers felt this boredom and attempted to spice their life up by entertaining each other with evening dinner parties using the garrison’s ample liquor ration and food for the Christmas and New Year celebrations.


    The officers had served together for a reasonable spell and were known to enjoy the good life from documented accounts of their conduct while stationed in Pretoria in the preceding months, which included tennis parties, dancing and socializing with the colonial  gentry of the day.

    The consequence of all of this is that the British positions (including the artillery piece – the Lady Roberts named after Lord Robert’s wife) were easily overcome and surrendered with very little fight at all.

    Of the various emplacements, it was only the King’s Koppie where a Colour Sergeant Johnson took charge of his position in the “absence” of his officer in command. He and his men staged a valiant defence which prevented a total rout of the British position. Johnson won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for leading this brave stand.


    Johnson opted to keep silent about the ineptness of his officers according to the unwritten warrior code. He was not even called as a witness to the resultant court martial in case his evidence was contrary to what Kitchener required. 

    After the war, the Regiment sent a simple telegram with the words, “We are mighty proud of you!” to Johnson. All in all, this was certainly not the mighty King’s Liverpool Regiment’s finest hour. By first light the Boers had retreated with almost the entire battalion in tow as prisoners of war.


    Once again, the festive rations were imbibed and Gen Viljoen wrote later in his memoirs that about 30 members of the garrison had to be left behind near Dullstroom as they were too drunk to walk. He also recounted how three of the officers had to be woken from their beds to be taken captive.

    Now that the actual battle had finished, the political intrigue and cover up began. This is the part that had remained “under the carpet” for so many years and Peter Goodship’s research has recently brought to light. Kitchener was devastated at a third consecutive loss and demanded that a plausible explanation was established. 

    The British government was furious as they had been assured that the war was all but over. “Home by Christmas” was the saying of the day, and these defeats were a major embarrassment (especially in the light of a looming election). The garrison’s commander, Major Cotton, was summonsed before a court martial for surrendering to the Boers.


    Evidence was led in his defence regarding the fact that he was recovering from a serious bout of malaria that saw him carried to Machadodorp on a dhoolie by Indian bearers. This is the Ghandi connection as Mahatma Ghandi organised the bearers for the Regiment. 


    He was also shot in the head by a bullet early in the fracas and spent most of the battle wandering around in a serious state of concussion. The court ignored this crucial evidence and Cotton found himself the sacrificial lamb that shouldered the full blame for the incident. Although Cotton bore the full brunt of the political hostilities, Kitchener revoked his court martial a few months later with little fanfare or restitution (he remained a civilian for the rest of his days).


    His name was also removed from all official War Office records of hostilities and to this day does not appear in any official government records of the Boer War. It is here that Goodship surmises that the Arthur Conan Doyle link fits in. Conan Doyle was vociferous in his comment on the war in South Africa.


    He publicly questioned the verdict of the court martial, but to no public acknowledgement. Conan Doyle and Kitchener no doubt continued their communication off the record. Both were members of the Masonic lodge and were known to frequent similar social gatherings.


    It appears that some form of amicable agreement was reached between them that lead to Cotton’s pardon. Conan Doyle received a knighthood soon afterwards and Kitchener was given his promotion to Commander in Chief of the Indian Army.


    And so, ends an intriguing part of history that appears to have been brushed aside to further the bigger picture. Official sources state that British losses amounted to 11 killed, 29 wounded and 253 captured, while the Burghers suffered “light casualties”.


    Conan Doyle stated that 50 Liverpool’s were killed but there is evidence that he was reporting selectively and was biased towards trying to influence the outcome of Major Cotton’s court martial. The SAFF Casualty Roll lists 10 men as killed and 35 wounded.

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    DCM (Edw VII): 5025 Pte M. Carney. Liverpool Regt.; 
    QSA, 3 clasps: DoL, L Nek, Belf: 5025 Pte M. Carney. Liverpool Regt; 
    KSA, 2 clasps SA’01, SA’02: 5025 Pte M. Carney. Liverpool Regt.

    Michael Carney was mentioned for “rendering special and meritorious service” in Lord Roberts’ Despatch which was published in the LG of 10/09/1901 (p5939) and his DCM was gazetted on 27/09/1901.


    Fortunately, the recommendation for the DCM is recorded in Rudolf, p85:
    “Pte M Carney – During the attack on Helvetia, 29th December 1900, covered by his fire Colour-Sergeant Johnson while the latter was rebuilding a partially demolished sangar, and otherwise displaying great coolness and gallantry”

    Carney attested in the Liverpool Regiment on 10 October 1895. He died on 10 Sept 1909, aged 31, of Paraplegia and Pulmonary Tuberculosis.


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