Home Page

29043 Sapper
Royal Engineers

2001. Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis


While this book was meant to be an account of the military service of Sapper Robert William Hunt, it is also a narrative dealing with two little known units of the Royal Engineers during the South African War of 1899 to 1902; the 2nd Balloon Section, and the 3rd Field Troop. It is also the story of the hardships suffered by the British troops who were surrounded by the Boers during the siege of Ladysmith. The military record of Sapper Hunt provided me with the vehicle to study in depth these two units, and the part they played in the Boer War. In reconstructing Sapper Hunt's service I have gained a good bit of knowledge which I have tried to pass on to the reader. Again, as with my previous research efforts, I have had to fill in some gaps in the narrative where information was lacking. I have even created a fictitious siege diary for Sapper Hunt as a means of relating his story during those awful days in Ladysmith. Despite these embellishments, I have attempted to remain true to the facts as they actually occurred.


Robert William Hunt was born on the 9th of August 1875 at 42 Newland Street, Barrow-in-Furness, Dalton, in the County of Lancashire. He was the son of Robert and Frances (formerly Winder) Hunt. Young Robert was raised in St. George's Parish as a member of the Church of England.

Barrow-in-Furness, located at the south end of the long Furness peninsula, was an industrial town with large docks, shipbuilding yards, and steel works. Robert's father was an engine fitter by trade, and when young Robert came of age, he became an engine driver, no doubt influenced to some degree by his father's work. He worked at this occupation until he was almost twenty years old, when he then made the decision to join the Army.

On the 29th of April 1895 he enlisted at Barrow-in-Furness where he took the Oath of Attestation before a Magistrate, after having been recruited for service by a Colour Sergeant of the 3rd Royal Lancashire Regiment. Hunt elected a short service enlistment of four years with the Colours and eight years in the Army Reserve. He opted for service with the Royal. Engineers, no doubt influenced by the skills he acquired in his civilian trade, and the need for such skills being required by the Corps. He was unmarried at the time of his enlistment and had been living at home with his parents up to this time.

He proceeded to Lancaster on 30th April where he was examined by a medical officer to determine if there were any causes to reject him for military service. He was declared fit for service in the Army.

At the time of his enlistment, Robert William Hunt was 19 years and 8 months old. He stood 5 feet 6 inches tall, and weighed 131 pounds. His complexion was fair and he had grey eyes and brown hair. His only distinctive features were a wart on the left side of his neck, and a brown stain, or birthmark, over his right eyebrow.

Following his medical examination, Hunt's enlistment was certified correct by the Approving Field Officer, a major of the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards. He was accordingly approved, and appointed to the Royal Engineers.


On the 1st of May, 29043 Sapper Robert William Hunt arrived at Chatham to begin his period of basic military training. In 1896, upon the completion of his training 1896 at Chatham, Hunt was transferred to Aldershot. There he was assigned to the Balloon Section commanded by Major G.M. Heath (later Major General Sir Gerard Moore Heath, KCMG, CB, DSO).

The history of the Balloon Section dates back to 1890 when a regimental unit of a new description was authorized for service with military balloons. Experiments had been carried out with captive balloons since 1878, and great improvements had been made in the arrangements for the supply of gas in the field. Although there was a balloon factory and school at Chatham, and balloons had been used in the Bechuanaland Expedition of 1884, and in the Sudan Campaign of 1885, no establishment was authorized until 1890. During that year the factory and school were moved from Chatham to Aldershot, and a balloon section and depot were formed as permanent units, thus recognizing balloons as part of the equipment of the British Army.

As an engine driver, familiar with the workings of the machinery necessary to generate gas in the field for the balloons, Hunt was employed in this occupation during his time at Aldershot. On 29th April 1897, the second anniversary of his enlistment, Sapper Hunt was authorized Good Conduct Pay at the rate of l.d. He had enjoyed his period of Army service up to this point and decided, on 25 November, to voluntarily extend his period of service to complete seven years with the Colours.

During this period in Sapper Hunt's military service there were many happenings at Aldershot in which he participated. The biggest concentration of royalty ever seen at Aldershot was during the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria in 1897. Sapper Hunt saw these and a host of other notables from all over the world flock to the Camp for the celebration. Among those he saw in close proximity to the Queen were the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York, Princess Victoria of Wales, Prince and Princess Charles of Denmark, Prince Henry of Battenberg, the Duchess of Albany, Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, and Princess Aribert of Hainault. In addition to these he saw hosts of other princes, princelings, princesses, peers, statesmen, generals, admirals, military and naval attaches. From India he saw maharajahs, from Africa an assortment of sultans and native chiefs, and lastly, gathered to watch him in the grand review were thousands of the Queen's ordinary subjects from all over the British Isles.

Nearly 30,000 troops, under the Duke of Connaught, participated along with Sapper Hunt in this Diamond Jubilee military review. He marched side by side with more than 1,000 troops from 'the colonies', meaning Canada, Australia and South Africa. These colonials were given the honour of leading the procession. Patriotic emotion among the troops and civilians reached its warmest after the royal salute. Helmets, bonnets and busbies were waved on the points of bayonets or just tossed wildly in the air. Civilians, in emulation, threw into the air their top hats, bowlers and cloth caps. Much good headgear' was sacrificed to patriotism and trampled into permanent deformity as the crowd surged like ocean waves in their cheers and cries of 'God save the Queen!'

With the festivities of the Jubilee ended, the troops went back to their routine of training. In 1898 Arthur 1898 Duke of Connaught ended his term as General Officer Commanding Aldershot. The announcement of his successor caused pride and pleasure for Sapper Hunt and the other troops at the Camp. For the new commander was General Sir Redvers Buller, VC, a national hero idolized by the public and adored by the Army. Buller was aged sixty, tall and wide of girth. He gave the impression of flabbiness that comes to older men who live too well and do not exercise. He had, before being assigned to command at Aldershot, spent nearly all the ten previous years sitting at a War Office desk as Quartermaster General and Adjutant General. Buller's sedentary life had not been improved by a plentitude of rich foods and fine wines. Yet, to the romantically blind eyes of young Sapper Hunt he had remained the dashing and intrepid hero and leader of men. Hundreds of parents were still naming their baby sons Redvers in the hope they would grow up with the manly qualities of General Sir Redvers Buller. In those days the stars of pop, films and sport had not arrived to over-shadow bold and brave army leaders as the heroes of British youth. Thus the story of General Buller was unapologetically related in schools, and with blood-curdling illustrations in popular magazines and cheap booklets.

Sapper Hunt could hardly conceal his delight when General Buller became installed at Government House in the Camp. The citizens of Aldershot were also delighted. Although Buller had not been in the fighting field for so long, he was still the most admired and respected general in the Army. Sapper Hunt and the other ordinary soldiers of the Camp were especially grateful to him because, as Adjutant General, he had done so much to improve their conditions of life. Buller had been Adjutant General during three eventful years in the history of Aldershot, from 1889-93, when Sir Evelyn Wood, shocked by its masses of rotting and leaking wooden huts, had pressed for more new barracks of stone and brick. Buller had supported him and persuaded the government to provide the large funds necessary for their construction. Buller, while economizing elsewhere, had never begrudged money that would improve the general lot of the men at Aldershot. The officers were pleased to have Buller as their chief at Aldershot because he had the reputation for exercising his authority without hesitation or favour; and he was always grateful for work well done. True that there were moments when Buller exhibited a flaming temper, but this would soon subside and he would nurse no grudges. Buller was considered by the majority to be a soldier's soldier.

With General Buller's arrival at Aldershot, it seemed to Sapper Hunt that the tempo of training had increased to a greater degree. Buller was painfully aware that England might soon find herself in a war far greater and more difficult than the past conflicts with those dark-skinned races whom, without fear or favour, he endowed with the name of 'savages'. He had made his martial reputation in campaigns against 'savages', but now there were dangers of war on a large scale with white Dutchmen in South Africa or with the 'civilized' nations of Europe. At Aldershot he practiced with the troops the mobilization drill of which he, Lord Wolseley and others had made paper plans at the War Office. He tightened still closer the links between Army transport and supply. He strengthened the co-operation and understanding between all the Army's services. The Buller worshippers took it for granted that, in addition to being the perfect organizer, he was also a tactical genius in the field. Thus they were pained when in maneuvers involving 50,000 men, in which Sapper Hunt participated, Buller was decisively defeated by a force commanded by the Duke of Connaught.

These then were some of the events in the life of Sapper Hunt at Aldershot during the years 1897 and 1898. On 10 April 1899 Hunt passed his class of instruction in Engine Driving (Ordinary) with a qualification of 'Superior'.

The predictions of Sir Redvers Buller concerning a war with the Dutchmen of South Africa soon became a reality. For some years the political affairs in South Africa had been in an unsatisfactory condition. In June of 1899 negotiations failed for a peaceful settlement of differences between the British and Transvaal governments. British units began mobilization for movement to South Africa. The single Balloon Section at Aldershot was formed into two sections in preparation for the impending war. Sapper Hunt was assigned to the 2nd Balloon Section under the command of Major Heath. Other section officers included Captain W.A. Tilney, 17th Lancers, and 2nd Lieutenant C. Mellor, Royal Engineers.


The 2nd Balloon Section departed England on the 10th of June 1899 bound for Natal. Sapper Hunt arrived with his section at Durban in September and proceeded immediately to join Sir George White's command at Ladysmith. The section arrived in Ladysmith on the 11th October, the day the war broke out.

The British troops in Ladysmith at that time consisted of the following units:

5th Lancers - a detachment of the 19th Hussars, Brigade Division, Royal Artillery - 10th Mountain Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery - 23rd Company, Royal Engineers - 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment 1st Battalion Liverpool Regiment - a Mounted Infantry Company - two sections of the 26th British Field Hospital - and a detachment of Colonial Troops.

At nearby Glencoe there was also a British force composed of:

18th Hussars - Brigade Division, Royal Artillery 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps, and Mounted Infantry Company - 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment, and Mounted Infantry Company - 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Mounted Infantry Company 6th Veterinary Field Hospital.

Ladysmith, which occupied so important a place in the early part of the war, had been originally selected in 1897 as the station for part of the British forces in Natal, because it occupied a convenient position at a railway junction. There seems, however, to have been no idea of making it defensible, and no steps had been taken to construct any kind of fortifications around it. Indeed, judging from the evidence upon the subject, no one seems to have thought there was any probability of its ever being attacked. But, during the months preceding the outbreak of hostilities, great quantities of stores and food supplies had been collected there, and, when the reinforcements arrived in Natal in September and October, the larger part of the troops were sent to Ladysmith, which thus became, one might say almost by accident, the most important military station in the Colony.

The 23rd Field Company, Royal Engineers, commanded by Major S.R. Rice, had arrived in Ladysmith on 14 July, and was employed on work in connection with the military cantonment and hospitals until the declaration of war, when the exposed position of the place became evident, and preparations for putting it in a state of defence were commenced.

On the 20th October the British force from Glencoe, approximately 4,000 strong, under the command of General Penn Symons, engaged a Boer force of about equal strength commanded by General Lucas Meyer at Talana Hill, some 40 miles northeast of Ladysmith. The Boers occupied a strong position on the heights of Dundee, from which they were dislodged by the British infantry, with a loss of about 300 men. The British lost 19 officers, 142 men killed and wounded, and 331 prisoners, the latter a detachment of cavalry and mounted infantry who were surrounded by a superior force of Boers, and surrendered. General Penn Symons was mortally wounded during the engagement. This was the first of the actions leading up to the siege of Ladysmith.

The following day, at Elandslaagte, only six miles northeast of Ladysmith, General French with three battalions of infantry, five squadrons of cavalry, and 12 guns, attacked a strong Boer force under General Koch. The Boers occupied a strong position on the high ground near the Ladysmith-Dundee railway. They were driven from this position by the infantry and dismounted Imperial Light Horse with a loss of 250 killed and wounded, and 200 prisoners, including General Koch. The British losses were 35 officers and 219 other ranks. The war was getting closer to Sapper Hunt. Although the battle at Elandslaagte might have been considered a victory by the British, it was becoming apparent to Hunt and the other troops in Ladysmith, that the Boers were tightening their circle around the town.

About this same time Brigadier General Yule was attempting to retreat to Ladysmith from Dundee with the remainder of General Penn Symon's force. A Boer force from the Orange Free State advanced to cut off Yule's retreat, occupying a range of hills about seven miles from Ladysmith in the vicinity of Rietfontein. On the 24th of October Sir George White sent out a force of about 4,000 troops from Ladysmith to attack the Boer position. After an indecisive action the British force returned to Ladysmith with a loss of 111 killed and wounded, but Sir George White's objective had been achieved, for the Boers were prevented from interfering with Yule's march. Again, Sapper Hunt could feel the tension rise as the Boer cordon closed around Ladysmith.

As the days went by the Boers further tightened their noose by occupying Long and Pepworth Hills and Lombard's Kop, all prominent features, the possession of which would give the Boers a distinct advantage during any attack on Ladysmith. A British force from Ladysmith attacked the Boer positions on Long and Pepworth Hills on the 29th October. On the 30th an attack was made on the Boer position at Lombard's Kop. During this latter action Sapper Hunt made his first direct contribution to the military actions around Ladysmith. A balloon from the section was inflated and sent up to direct artillery fire against the Boer position. The next day two balloons were sent up over Ladysmith. Both were hit by shell fragments, however neither was seriously damaged and there were no casualties to the section.

After the Battle of Lombard's Kop on October 30th, the British force was concentrated in and close to the town, which by then was surrounded by the Boers. The units now present at Ladysmith consisted of the 21st, 42nd, and 53rd Field Batteries, Royal Artillery, a battalion of Naval Artillery, two guns of the Natal Naval Reserve, Natal Mounted Volunteers, the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, 1st Battalion Liverpool Regiment, 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders, 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, the 1st Manchesters, several companies of Mounted Infantry, the 23rd Field Company and 2nd Balloon Section, Royal Engineers, Medical and Veterinary Corps detachments, and a detachment of Colonial reinforcements from Maritzburg, and a Naval Brigade force of 750 men. From Glencoe the Ladysmith garrison was reinforced by the 13th, 67th, and 69th Field Batteries, Royal Artillery, the 18th Hussars, an additional force of Natal Mounted Volunteers, 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment, 1st and 2nd Battalions King's Royal Rifle Corps, 2nd Battalion Dublin Fusiliers, several companies of Mounted Infantry, and a Field Hospital Corps unit. In all these units comprised the defending force of about 13,550 men. Their adversaries, a combined force of Boers from the Transvaal and Orange Free State, numbered approximately 30,500.

On the 2nd November communications with the outside world was cut off. Sapper Hunt and the garrison of Ladysmith were now trapped in the beseiged town. From this date until the relief of the town on 28 February 1900 the Royal Engineers of the garrison were continuously employed in constructing and strengthening the works of defence. Major S.R. Rice, commander of the 23rd Field Company, was appointed Commander Royal Engineer by Sir George White.

If the reader can now imagine that Sapper Hunt kept a diary during the days he was beseiged in Ladysmith it would not be far from the truth to imagine that it read like this:

2 November 1899

The Dutch have completely surrounded us now as we have been informed by Major Heath. He tells us that a relief force will be here soon, so that we have very little to worry about. Our position is strong and there is little chance that the Boers will be successful. He warned us about the dangers from Boer artillery and we are all aware of where the nearest shelters are located.

3 November 1892

The Boers shell the town with great frequency making our work somewhat dangerous. It is difficult working under fire, but we keep busy sending balloons up. No casualties in our Section so far.

4 November 1899

We are keeping very busy sending balloons up to observe the Boer positions. Major Heath says our efforts are giving very good information with regard to the enemy's movements.

5 November 1892

Balloons up again today.

6 November 1899

Major Heath told us today that he had talked to a Boer prisoner. The man said that the enemy had a particular dislike for the balloonists. Our constant reporting of their movements was causing them quite a bit of trouble. The whole section cheered at hearing this news. We now have a feeling that we are doing our bit to assist in the defence. Of course we all realize now that we will be receiving more attention from the Dutchmen and can expect to be shelled with even greater frequency than before.

7 November 1899

A balloon was sent up today to direct the fire of a Naval "Long Tom" gun against the enemy.

8 November 1899

Word received today of the first Sapper casualty since the siege began. Major S.C.N. Grant, an engineer officer who I believe is on Sir George White's staff, was severely wounded by shell fire.

9 November 1899

The Boers made two rather large attacks on the town today, one in the north, and the other in the south. Both were repelled with heavy losses to the enemy. Another Sapper officer, a Major Gale, was reported wounded by shellfire in the center of town while sending a telegraph message.

10 November 1899

A balloon was sent up today to look for signs of Sir Redvers Buller's relieve column. To my knowledge the column was not sighted.

11 November 1899

Another engineer staff officer hit today. Major H. Mullaly was severely wounded by shellfire. The enemy seems to have it in for Field Officer.

12 November 1899

A balloon up today. The rumour is that the relief column has been sighted

13 November 1899

Shelling of the town continued today. No Sapper losses.

14 November 1822

Some Boer troops took up a position on a small kopje and one of our batteries tried to rout them. There was some smart cannonading, till our lads were forced to fall back on the town. After this day assault, the Dutchmen tried a new trick - a midnight attack. All their guns simultaneously opened fire on the town, turning the whole place into a burning hell. Several buildings caught fire, and the whistling and shrieking shells at intervals made a terrifying sound in the weird silence of the night. None of our lads were hit.

15 November 1899

A balloon was sent up today. I believe that I heard Lieutenant Mellor say that heliograph messages had been sent to the relief column. Everyone is anxious to hear that the column is close by.

16 November 1899

The constant shelling is beginning to wear on everyone's nerves.

17 November 1822

Another balloon sent up today. The section QMS told me today that the gas supply for the balloons is getting low.

18 November 1899

The enemy hit the Royal Hotel squarely with a large shell today. Dr. Stark, a naturalist who had come to Natal to study birds, was killed as he was standing near the door of the hotel. The shell came square through the roof and out by the door.

19 November 1899

The shelling is beginning to get to the men. Some are saying they do not believe that the relief column is coming. Major Heath is trying to reassure us all.

20 November 1822

The men are beginning to look tired and pale. No one has come down sick yet, although some of the lads look like they should be in hospital already.

21 November 1899

An inhumane action defaced the ordinary programme of war today. The Town Hall has been turned into a hospital for the sick, and this, by reason of its conspicuous clocktower with the red flag flying above it, made a convenient mark for the shots of the enemy. In spite of a number of warnings the Dutch gunner proceeded to batter the place with shells, killing one patient and wounding nine others.

22 November 1899

A report of the first Sapper death today. 25178 Driver E.J. Herbert died of enteric fever. More lads are going down sick each day.

23 November 1899

Gas supply running low but the balloons are still going up. There are reports of contact with General Buller's force.

24 November l899

Another balloon up today. Major Heath says the Boers are fortifying positions near Potgieters.

25 November 1899

Shells and flies very numerous, but the latter more annoying.

26 November 1899

Major Heath went up again today. He reported to Sir George that the Boer position at Potgieters appears to be meant to stop General Buller's advance.

27 November 1899

Another balloon up today to observe the enemy's movements near Potgieters.

28 November 1899

The supply of gas for the balloons is almost gone. A balloon went up today to heliograph information to General Buller regarding the enemy position at Potgieters.

29 November 1899

A message from the Prince of Wales was received today, thanking officers and men for the birthday congratulations we had succeeded in forwarding to him. Hopes of a speedy relief revived.

30 November 1899

Unfortunately, all available gas with the section is exhausted. Further supply is unobtainable from the field gas factory at the base. All balloons are grounded. That is not the only bad news today. Three more Sapper casualties reported:

811 Sapper J. Milne - severely wounded

1435 Sapper A.E. Knight - slightly wounded

27281 Sapper J. Wilkins - killed

1 December 1899

Without gas we no longer serve any useful purpose as a Balloon Section. My days as an engine driver are over at least for a while. Major Heath has informed the section that we will be used to augment the work of the other Sappers on the defensive works around the town.

2 December 1899

We were told today that most of our work will be done in the areas of Waggon Hill and Caesar's Camp, on the south side of the town.

3 December 1899

Today we began work on improving the defences on the south side of the camp. Heavy artillery fire by day makes it necessary to do most of the work at night.

4 December 1899

We continue working at night, under the most unfavorable conditions, over difficult ground, and with an inadequate supply of tools.

5 December 1899

I find myself becoming weak from the work and want of food. Many of us have already collapsed.

6 December 1899

Our men are becoming so weak from sickness and the lack of food that we can no longer march to our-work sites. We are now being taken to the work sites in wagons to help conserve our strength.

7 December 1892

Major Heath commended all in the section today on behalf of the General. Sir George gave us the highest praise for our determination and self-sacrifice.

8 December 1892

Word received today that General Hunter carried out a brilliant operation against the Boer guns at Lombard's Kop. Two Sapper officers distinguished themselves during the attack. Captain Fowke and Lieutenant Turner, with great skill destroyed a 6-inch gun and a 4.7-inch howitzer with guncotton. They also captured a Maxim.

9 December 1899

The section has been given orders to work on the construction of a number of batteries, magazines, and bombproofs. The health of the men is failing, and the Boer shelling makes work difficult.

10 December 1899

We have now been also given the mission of placing lines of abattis and wire entanglements around the positions at Waggon Hill and Caesar's Camp. We have been told that these two positions are the key to the defences on the south side of the town.

11 December 1899

Other new tasks given to us today. Electrical and mechanical mines are being improvised and emplaced. Also, roads have to be made to various points, and two bridges must be built over the Klip River.

12 December 1800

We assisted in moving two naval guns from the north of Ladysmith to Caesar's Camp and Waggon Hill. We are constantly in danger while working in these positions as they are the focus of the Boers' attention. 28797 Sapper L. Hibberd was hit and severely wounded. We learned that he has died.

13 December 1899

The routine now is the same from day to day. Hard work, mostly at night, little food or rest, constant shelling, more sick, fear. Will the relief column never come? I am so tired it is difficult for me to even write down these few lines in my diary each day.

18 December 1899

Quite a few days since my last entry. Nothing has changed very much, except that everyone is a little more miserable. 829 Sapper W. Fuller killed by enemy fire today.

21 December 1821

Christmas is only a few days off. Major Heath says that some activities are planned which will lift our spirits.

Christmas Day 1899

Christmas passed off well. Hope revived. News of Lord Methuen's victories have refreshed our ears. A series of sports of various kinds helped to impart to, the day a suitable air of festivity.

27 December 1822

The number of sick in hospital continues to grow. Some diseases, I fear, will soon reach epidemic proportions.

29 December 1822

Enteric fever claimed another sapper today; 19408 Corporal F.R. Wooley died.

31 December 1822

New Year's eve. Sickness is rife throughout the town. Fortunately there are many doctors here of repute, not only in the Army Medical Department, but also independent practitioners. Medicines are now growing scarce, and milk, which seems to be all that some of the sick can digest, is not to be had anymore. It is pathetic to think of the losses that have occurred through the lack of suitable nourishment for those whose cases, not in themselves serious, only required care and sustenance. Perhaps the New Year will bring us speedy relief.

1 January 1900

Heavy enemy bombardment today. A shell landed near the railway station where a cricket match was underway. It killed an officer who was in the act of bowling. I am told that he dropped with the ball still in his hand.

5 January 1900

Enteric fever claimed yet another sapper today; 323 Driver R.E. Burke died in the hospital.

6 January 1900

A fierce engagement was fought during the early morning on Waggon Hill. Lieutenant R.J.T. Digby-Jones of the 23rd Field Company led a section of sappers in a gallant defence of the position. Poor Digby-Jones was killed. I understand he has been recommended for the Victoria Cross. I had a long talk with Sapper George Hall, whose home is in Newcastle. He was one of the 33 sappers with Digby-Jones during the fight. From what Hall could gather the Boers apparently began to ascend the southern face of the southern defences at around 3 a.m. Without normal military discipline, some of the burghers crept away from the fight in the darkness. But others climbed steadily upwards through the night - and those Boers who were farthest ahead were over to the west at Wagon Point. Lieutenant Digby-Jones and Hall, and the other sappers arrived at Wagon Point in the dark to assist in the emplacement of some naval guns. Two 12-pounder guns were put in place and then a 4.7-inch gun was brought to the northern foot of Wagon Point, escorted by 13 sailors and 170 Gordon Highlanders. It remained there while the sappers prepared its emplacement. Hall said that everybody was busy doing something. The gun cradle was being lifted and mounted. The Royal Navy master-gunner (and a gentleman bully he was, according to Hall) was doing all this. When they got the gun up, they couldn't swivel it. The master-gunner was furious and began cursing everyone. They had to take the gun down again and dismantle it. It was while they were doing this that Hall heard the report of rifles. They kicked out their lamps and dashed for their rifles. Into the sangar they went. Some poor devils panicked - they couldn't find their rifles, so they began to run. Young Digby-Jones jumped on to a rock and drew his revolver and said to the stampeding men "The first man that passes me I'll shoot him dead...", and then poor old Digby got it, right through the throat. Hall was within 50 yards of him. The Boers were within 150 yards. One old Boer, de Villiers, Hall thinks it was, came over the top of the sangar and told them all to surrender. A bloke put up his rifle and missed him. Can you imagine him in the gun-pit, about 16 feet across, telling everyone to surrender?

After Digby-Jones was killed there was much confusion. Hall said that he was shooting at the Boers and they were shooting back. Nobody seemed to be in charge. The two lieutenants, a sergeant, a corporal, and a lance corporal were all dead. The master-gunner took charge and began bossing the sangar. Hall recalls that all this started at roughly two in the morning. It went on till about four o' clock in the afternoon - then Hall heard a cheer, and it started to rain. Men were lying all around - shot through. Hall said they covered the dead over so they wouldn't have to see their faces.

7 January 1900

The casualty list was posted today of the sappers who fought on Wagon Hill yesterday. I lost a number of good friends:

Lieutenant R.J.T. Digby-Jones - killed

2nd Lieutenant G.B.B. Denniss - killed

21027 Sergeant C. Jackson- killed

25723 2nd Corporal E.J. Hunt - killed

26046 2nd Corporal H.A. Bailey- killed

1439 Sapper W.G. Simmons - killed

1414 Sapper W. Bland - killed

1986 Sapper C. Catchpole- severely wounded

1520 Sapper W. M'Carron- severely wounded

28753 Sapper H. Rutt - severely wounded

28457 Sapper S.F. Hudson- slightly wounded

1531 Sapper A. Powell- slightly wounded

I, and a number of the other men of the Balloon Section were acquainted with some of these men. Not only had we been serving together here in Ladysmith since the beginning of the siege, but we were also friends from our days at Chatham and Aldershot.

 8 January 1900

They have finally had time to sort out, in detail, the fight on Wagon Hill. Major Heath gave us an official accounting of what had happened. It appears that as the Boers came over the top some of the troops stampeded just as George Hall related the story to me. Six known men stood their ground and ordered a halt. They were Colonel Hamilton, Major Wallnutt, Captain Fitzgerald, Sergeant Lindsay and Trooper Albrecht (Imperial Light Horse) and Gunner Sims, Royal Navy. They stopped the flight. About twelve Boers were on top. Then, from the Imperial Light Horse fort, which was about 200 yards to the rear, came a blast of fire at the Boers. All, save three, took cover; these three were de Villiers, de Jager and Gert Wessels. These men, apparently, were incapable of going backwards. They raced for the gun pits. But also Colonel Hamilton and company were set on the gun pits. It was a lethal race. First was Colonel Hamilton, who leaned on the sandbag parapet and fired at the nearest Boer with his revolver. Trooper Albrecht fired next. And then Lieutenant Digby-Jones with Corporal Hockaday appeared, each firing at a Boer. Suddenly, almost everybody was shot. De Villiers, de Jager and Gert Wessels lay dead. Major Wallnutt got a bullet through the head and Trooper Albrecht fell a moment later. Lieutenant Digby-Jones ordered some of his nerve-shattered men back to their positions and then, as George Hall had described, was shot through the throat, and died. Lieutenant Denniss ran to his side to help and was also shot. Colonel Hamilton miraculously stood unharmed. It is believed that de Villiers shot Major Wallnutt and Digby-Jones shot de Villiers. It was the Devons who gave the loud cheer that George Hall heard as they charged to clear the hill.

13 January 1900

23262 Lance Corporal G.B. Renyard died of dysentery today.

20 January 1900

Two more sapper losses today. 1848 Sapper T. Cox died of wounds received a few days ago. 19466 Corporal W.H. Hill died of enteric fever. More and more sickness being reported in town.

28 January 1900

Major Heath informed us today that Sir Charles Warren, after holding a position at a place called Spion Kop, was forced to retire leaving the Boers undisturbed in their occupation of a commanding position. Our casualties were very great. Yet another set-back for us.

29 January 1900

19557 Corporal J.W. Stedman died today of peritonitis.

30 January 1900

Two more losses today from disease. 156 Sapper A. Drew, and 27805 Sapper G. Finch, both died of enteric fever.

31 January 1900

1358 Sapper H. Manders died today of peritonitis. This diary is beginning to read like an obituary.

1 February 1900

The story of famine is an insidious story, a creeping horror that, scarcely visible, yet slowly and very gradually saps first the spirit, then the energy, then the blood, and finally all the little sparks of being that serve to divide us from the dead. The seal of hunger is set on every one

of our actions, yet no one complains. We are cramped up in our quarters and shelters scarcely as conscious of the danger from shot and shell as we are of the aching void in our stomachs.

2 February 1900

The work parties continue to go out each day. But each day with fewer men. It takes all of our resources just to march. Our lungpower is scant and short-lived.

3 February 1900

Out on fatigue duty again today. We all seem to be moving like shadows. I noticed today how prominent everyone's cheek bones are. In ordinary life you don't look upon cheekbones as a feature of the face. Usually, you take stock of a fellow's eyes, nose, mouth, possibly his ears. Here in Ladysmith you look at the other fellow's cheekbones and the tone of the tanned skin stretched across them.

4 February 1900

28933 Sapper C.F. Snuggs died today of enteric fever.

5 February 1900

The men are very near the brink of starvation. A shell plumped into the mule lines today and killed one of the animals. Shells followed on the first, crashing all around, but the famished racing throng did not heed them. Their one desire was to get to the dead mule. They cut off great chunks of meat and ran to safer quarters.

9 February 1900

Caught today in a violent artillery attack while I was up at Caesar's Camp. Not injured, but very unnerving.

12 February 1900

Peritonitis claimed 29240 Sapper W. Kenyon today.

13 February 1900

Two more deaths today. 24158 2nd Corporal J.W. Askham and 28838 Sapper J.J. Mudd, both of enteric fever.

15 February 1900

Using the horses for food. No milk or vegetables left.

18 February 1900

399 Driver P. Cross died today of enteric fever.

21 February 1900

Melancholy and depression reign everywhere in the town. We have almost ceased to talk to each other, for there is nothing left to talk about. All but a few have given up any hope of General Buller's arrival.

23 February 1900

28964 Sapper J. Carroll died today of enteric fever.

24 February 1900

So many men are in hospital that we hardly have a Section left. We cannot go on much longer like this.

25 February 1900

I was up on Waggon Hill today when the Boers fired a violent barrage on the position. Many around me were hit but I escaped unharmed. On returning to town I learned of another death among the sappers; 370 Sapper Chesher, of enteric fever.

27 February 1900

Fatigue duty today at Caesar's Camp. We are to spend the night at the position.

28 February 1900

A GLORIOUS DAYI WE HAVE BEEN RELIEVED! At six o'clock all the suffering and tension came to an end. Our obstinate resistance, the heroic combats, the semi-starvation, all were over. In the late afternoon we saw in the valley horsemen recklessly approaching, riding at full gallop. At first we did not know what to make of it. Were they Boers or Buller's cavalry? There was a wild cheer as the horsemen became distinctly visible. It was a squadron of our cavalry and they were making straight for Ladysmith. The relief column had arrived. But among all this joy there was still sorrow. 25987 Sapper C. Mardon died of enteric fever without ever knowing that the relief column had arrived.

1 March 1900

We are all now getting a well-earned rest and plenty of food. The rumour is that we will rest at Ladysmith for some time before moving on. I would prefer to leave this place.

2 March 1900

Major Heath related some interesting information to us today. Ladysmith at the commencement of the siege held some 13,496 fighting men and over 2,000 civilians. Owing to sickness and hard fighting the number diminished to 10,164. There were 2,000 in hospital, but the death rate practically increased only when, after January, food, nourishment of all kinds, and medical supplies grew scarce. At that time sickness of whatever kind assumed an ominous aspect. From the 15th January the daily death rate increased dramatically. Many died from wounds, very slight wounds, from which they had not the stamina to recover. The fevered and weakly dropped off from sheer starvation and famine. The deaths as a result of fighting were 24 officers and 235 men, while those attributed to sickness numbered six officers and 520 m-en, exclusive of white civilians. Among the Sappers, our casualties to date are nine wounded and 28 dead of wounds or disease.

9 March 1900

21291 Sergeant W. Burtenshaw died today of enteric fever. The horrors of the siege are still with us. I had originally intended that this journal only be a diary of the siege. But as we are resting and recuperating now I have plenty of time to continue writing. I believe that I will continue the diary until we receive orders to march.

14 March 1900

2119 Driver G.H. Arthur died of enteric fever yesterday. Today that dreaded disease took 29284 Driver F.W. Morris. There seems to be no end to our losses.

18 March 1900

We received word today that Major Heath had asked for and received permission to reorganize the 2nd Balloon Section. We are to be converted into the 3rd Field Troop, R.E. to work with the cavalry. We will be assigned to Lord Dundonald's 3rd (Mounted) Brigade in Sir Redvers Buller's Natal Field Force. We will leave all our balloons and engines behind. I am now to be a mounted sapper!

 23 March 1900

We learned, with great pride, that Major Heath has been mentioned in Sir George White's despatches of this date. The mention reads as follows:

"Major G. Heath, in charge of Balloon Section, is a bold and enterprising aeronaut, and rendered useful service; the constant watch which he kept on the enemy's movements being a source of much disquiet to them."

While the M.I.D. was for Major Heath specifically, we all felt a sense of pride and accomplishment for doing our bit during the siege.

31 March 1900

2908 Sapper A. Wyth died today of phthisis. I had no idea of what this disease might be so I visited a pal of mine, Private Marsh, of the Army Medical Corps. He was down with enteric so I went to the hospital to see him. He did not look very well at all, but as weak as he was he was able to tell me that phthisis was another name for consumption, or tuberculosis.

1 April 1900

We left Ladysmith today and set up an encampment at Bug's Farm, not far from town. It is rumoured that we will remain here for some time to recuperate and make preparations to take part in the general advance against the Boers now being planned by General Buller.

7 April 1900

I learned today that my A.M.C. pal, 11596 Private S. March died of the fever.

8 April 1900

Another death today; 27706 Sapper R. Elliot, of dysentery. The sooner we leave this bloody place behind the better I will like it.

30 April 1900

The boredom is beginning to tell on everyone. We are ready to move on. The longer we stay here the more we hear about the deaths of more of our friends. Since Elliot died on the 8th we have lost the following men:

10 April - 27308 Driver W. Knight-died of debility

14 April - 2075 Sapper W. Wharton-died of diarrhoea

21 April - 320 Driver H. Garrett-died of enteric

26 April - 693 Sapper J. Palmer-died of enteric

26 April - 27244 2nd Corpl. E.H. Cowie - died of enteric

3 May 1900

Major Heath says we will be moving on very shortly. It cannot be too soon for me.

8 May 1900

Two more of our lads dead of disease today:

322 Driver W. Hubbard died of enteric fever

28546 Driver E.C. Thomas died of dysentery

11 May 1900

Orders were issued today for the Troop to assemble in the vicinity of Sunday River Drift, south of Elandslaagte. The general advance is about to begin. I shall pack away this diary for safe keeping for I doubt if there will be much time to continue writing it during the advance.

Such might have been Sapper Hunt's account of the horrible days spent in Ladysmith. Let us now return to a narrative account of the remainder of his service in South Africa.

On the 12th May the 3rd Field Troop arrived at Waschbank facing the heights of Biggarsberg. After some fighting, the Boers were driven from the positions which they had taken up on the Biggarsberg Hills, 30 miles north of Ladysmith, and made little further resistance in Natal, leaving the road open to Laing's Nek, where they determined to make a stand. The advance was continued northward with the column reaching Dannhauser Station on the 17th and entering Newcastle the following day. Reports came in to Sir Redvers Buller that the Boers were full of activity, swarming in the direction of the famous Laing's Nek and Majuba Hill. Therefore, on the afternoon of Saturday the l9th of May, Lord Dundonald's Brigade, with. naval guns and the 3rd Field Troop, went ahead to unearth the enemy. The Boers, however, were deeply entrenched, and Sapper Hunt and the other desperately fatigued men and horses of Dundonald's brigade returned towards Ingogo Station.

Sir Redvers Buller's force rested for approximately three weeks before resuming its advance on 6 June. On the 8th of June Sapper Hunt was present at the action at Botha's Pass were some 2,000 Boers were outflanked and routed from their mountain strongholds, and the pass captured without serious losses.

The 9th was spent in a general halt on the summit of the pass, getting the transport through the Drakensberg, hauling baggage up the steep slopes, and skirmishing with Boers who hovered on the outskirts of the hills. The labor entailed was prodigious, as the roads to the pass were intensely precipitous, the hill being over a mile long, and many of the transport wagons had to be doublespanned before they could make any appreciable advance. The troops, too, were sorely tried, for at night they shivered in the crisp, frosty atmosphere, which felt additionally numbing after the warm sunlight of midday. Still, with unquenchable zeal, Sapper Hunt and the rest of his comrades pursued their labors, climbing and clambering over the boulders and slabs of rock, and looking down the chasms below with genuine satisfaction at the thought of obstacles surmounted and decisive work to be accomplished. They had now secured a commanding position, which in a very short space of time they hoped to make unchallengeable.

On the 10th General Buller's force, marching over the wide veldt, reached the junction of Gans Vlei, some ten miles north, while General Hildyard's force crossed the pass and concentrated on Klip River, situated some 15 miles due west of Laing's Nek, and in face of some rugged country on the way to Volksrust. The Boers were congregating there, and preparing in the Almond's Nek region to intercept the passage.

On the 11th the advance was continued in the direction of Volksrust, and General Hildyard made a brilliant frontal attack against the Boers who were now holding a formidable position with several guns at the east of Almond's Nek, about seven miles north of Gans Vlei. The British force succeeded in capturing the whole of the position, in clearing the enemy entirely off the scene, and rendering harmless the rows of trenches on Laing's Nek.

After nine days of rest the advance again resumed with Sapper Hunt and his unit moving to Paarde Kop, and then on to Standerton, arriving there on 22 June. The following day the brigade pushed on toward Heidelberg, engaging a small party of Boers enroute. After a short skirmish the Boers left the field, the brigade losses being one man killed and two missing.

By the 4th of July Sapper Hunt and his unit had arrived at Vlakfontein. Here the armies of General Buller and Lord Roberts met to form a combined force. On the 7th, Hunt arrived at Pretoria. From Pretoria his unit moved to Balmoral, along the Pretoria to Middleburg railway, arriving there on 23 July. After a rest of about three weeks the advance was continued towards Belfast on the 15th of August.

The enemy made a desperate attempt on the 23rd August to prevent General Buller from reaching Belfast. They endeavored to lay a trap for the cavalry, which Sapper Hunt was accompanying, opening fire on them at fairly short range with a long-range 15-pounder and pom-poms. Buller's artillery quickly silenced them and the ruse failed. On the following day some more fighting took place prior to Buller's arrival at Belfast. The General and his entire force reached their destination on the 25th.

Almost immediately General Buller's force was shelled by the Boers and the town of Belfast itself was also liberally attacked. The Boers, with long-range guns from Dalmanutha, made a stubborn defence of their ground. General Buller continued to push steadily forward, driving back the Boers as he went, and bivouacking on the ground he had gained.

On the 26th of August Sapper Hunt found himself in the middle of a big battle, as the whole day was spent in furious fighting over a 30-mile radius around Belfast. On the 27th Buller's force made the grand attack that broke the back of the Boer army. The following day Sapper Hunt advanced with Lord Dundonald's force over difficult country and chased the remnants of the Boer forces northward as they retired. By the 2nd of September Sapper Hunt was with Lord Dundonald's mounted troops at Nooitgedacht, and by the 6th Hunt reached Lydenburg, taking part in its capture.

General Buller proceeded to occupy the region of the Mauchberg range on the 9th of September, in spite of some resistance from the enemy. Regardless of the infamous roads and execrable weather, the troops moved on and on towards the frowning heights of Spitz Kop. But it was a tremendous ten miles along narrow passes among mountains, some of them 6,000 feet high, skirting deep gorges, and in the very teeth of the enemy, who ever launched at them fire from pom-poms and musketry, yet failed to arrest the steady onward progress of men and guns. On the 10th the troops were at Kipgat, midway between Mauchberg and Spitz Kop, the Boers, a demoralised rabble, hurrying before them in such panic that they were unable to prevent the capture of tons of food stores, the gun tackle of a heavy gun, and some ammunition. The rest, rather than it should fall into British hands, they flung over the crags - thirteen wagons being sacrificed to the necessity for speedy flight.

By the 13th September General Buller had located himself on Spitz Kop, which stands some 7,100 feet high and commands an enormous expanse of country. Here 58 burghers surrendered, and the troops captured 300,000 bales of supplies and 300 boxes of ammunition. But the Boers were luckier elsewhere. A convoy under Lieutenant Meyrick, Royal Engineers, with an escort of cavalry, in the act of repairing a telegraph line, was attacked near the Crocodile River. Lieutenant Meyrick was wounded and his escort reported as missing.

General Buller, who was clearing the country north of Lydenburg, continuing his operations, moved from Spitz Kop on the 24th September. He drove the enemy from Burghers Pass, and on the 26th took up a position on the Machlac River. On the following day he reached Pilgrim's Rest without casualties.

On the 2nd of October Sapper Hunt returned to Lydenburg with the remainder of General Buller's force. General Buller's army was disbanded shortly thereafter. The 3rd Field Troop, R.E. was broken up and its members attached in small parties to the different columns of the Army. Sapper Hunt's work at this point consisted mainly of the maintenance and exploitation of the railways and telegraphs, the construction of defences, provisioning of cantonments and hospitals, road and bridge building, and blockhouse construction.

In a despatch dated 9 November, General Buller detailed the work of his force employed in safeguarding the lines of-communications from Ladysmith to Heidelburg from July to September, and submitted the following:

"No. 3 Field Troop did excellent service; it was raised, organized and well commanded by Major G. Heath, who was ably assisted by Lieutenant R. Walker. Sergeant C. Mew is particularly deserving."

In December Major Heath left the 3rd Field Troop to be assigned to General Alderson's Mounted Infantry. Sapper Hunt continued his post war garrison duties and on the 29th of April 1901 was authorized Good Conduct Pay at the rate of 2.d. With the ending of hostilities, and the boredom normally associated with garrison duties, Sapper Hunt's conduct soon took a down-hill slide. He was administered company punishment by Lieutenant Mellor on 10 June, his punishment being forfeiture of l.d. of his Good Conduct Pay. On 29 November, after committing another infraction, he was again administered company punishment, this time by Lieutenant Cobb. For this offense Hunt lost the remaining l.d. of his Good Conduct Pay.

Sapper Hunt served in South Africa during all of the year 1902, and in January of 1903 he was assigned to the 5th Field Company, R.E. On the 29th of April he was transferred to the 1st Class Army Reserve, on the expiration of his period of active Army service.


Shortly after his transfer to the 5th Field Company Sapper Hunt departed South Africa and returned to England. He took up residence at his parent's home at 15 Hindpool Road, Barrow-in-Furness, Dalton, Lancashire. Here he presumably returned to his civilian occupation as an engine driver.

After four years in the Army Reserve, Hunt was discharged on 28 April 1907, on the termination of his period of engagement. His total service amounted to 12 years; eight years with the Colours and four years in the 1st Class Army Reserve. He was unmarried at the time of his discharge.

For his active service Sapper Hunt was authorized the Queen's South Africa Medal with clasps for "DEFENCE OF LADYSMITH", "LAING'S NEK", and "BELFAST", as well as the King's South Africa Medal with clasps "South Africa 1901" and "South Africa 1902".


1. Certified Copy of the Birth Certificate of Robert William Hunt.

2. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Volume III.

3. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Volume IV.

4. Aldershot Review. John Walters.

5. South African War Honours and Awards, 1899-1902. Arms and Armour Press.

6. The Royal Engineer Journal, June 1929.

7. South Africa and the Transvaal War, Volumes II through VI. Louis Creswicke.

8. The Boer War. Thomas Pakenham.

9. Thank God We Kept the Flag Flying. Kenneth Griffith.

10. Roadbook of Britain. Charles Letts and Company, Ltd.

11. Dictionary of Battles. Thomas Harbottle and George Bruce.

12. War Office File W097/5093 Military Service Papers of Sapper Robert William Hunt:

Short Service Enlistment
Description on Enlistment
Certificate of Medical Examination
Statement of Services
Military History Sheet

13. The South African War Casualty Roll. The "Natal Field Force", 20th Oct. 1899 - 26th Oct. 1900. J.B.Hayward & Son.