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Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

We are pleased to have discovered, and rescued from the trash heap of history, a most wonderful memento of a great Anglo-Boer War hero, Col. G. E. Benson RA, killed in action, October 30, 1901.

The Officer's Note Book was written by Capt. Henry S. Rawlinson, of the Coldstream Guards, and bears a publishing date of 1898, and a preface which states that: "Owing to the author being ordered on active service, the book has been completed in a hurry, and he apologizes for inaccuracies."

It has a binding leather strap and a pencil pouch.

(Rawlinson became a Captain in that regiment in 1892, and became a Major in 1899, which makes the 1898 date - and his title - likely, though not a certainty - that this book was indeed published in 1898.)


Note Book - Maj. GE Benson, 1899
Original Book - Size - 12 x 17 cm
Found - Birmingham, UK
Signed on flyleaf in pencil "Maj. GE Benson RA 1899"
Exciting Development

The Department of Printed Books of the Imperial War Museum has informed us that it does not have a copy of this work, but confirmed that the first edition of this book was published in 1895, and that this (the third edition) was indeed published in 1898, without revisions, because Rawlinson was called away suddenly, that year, to join Lord Kitchener's staff for his Sudan campaign against the Khalifa. Churchill was there and so was Major Benson.

The Officer's Note Book of Maj. GE Benson RA - 1899


"No more night marches..."
- Col. Benson

On December 11, 1899, occurred one of the greatest slaughters of the British Army, in the Boer War, at the Battle of Magersfontein, a few kms east of Modder River.

General Wauchope led his forces on a night march to surprise the Boers whom he expected on top of Magersfontein Hill left.

In the dark, he counted on an officer with a compass to direct the army to its target.

Suddenly, the Boers ambushed the British, of whom scores were killed, and later buried where they fell, under the memorial left.

General Wauchope and many of his officers were killed.

 

 

 

This is the setting for an important historic book we have discovered. It contains all sorts of information useful to an officer commanding troops during a campaign: how much space a marching column needs, how to gauge rations for men and horses, how to build trenches, and bridges etc.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Stevengraph - General Wauchope, 1900
Orig. silk - Size - 6 c 10 cm
Found - Toronto, ON

The only Stevengraph we've been able to find of a Boer War hero killed in action.

Go to Stevengraphs

The Signature: Of special interest is the signature of an officer which appears inside the title page top, made the year after the book was published.

Research shows there was only one Major GE Benson RA, in the British Army in 1899, and he was with General Wauchope, as he marched, with the Highland Brigade, to the disaster at the Battle of Magersfontein, on Dec. 11, 1899.

And he was the officer who guided the column, with his compass, during the blackness of that stormy night.

Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that Major Benson might very well have carried this very note-book in his vest pocket on that famous march.

Priceless: More than being only a fabulous historical memento, this book is the very tool of history that a key military officer studied for guidance before embarking to take part in one of the British Army's greatest defeats.

By the Book: Among the fascinating instructional tidbits contained in the Note-Book is a section on "Night Operations" which starts by noting the importance of a compass for "night work."

The fateful instructions recommend that, "Battalions should march in quarter column if possible, with ropes on the flanks of companies from front to rear ..."

More details on night marches are given, all of which were followed by Wauchope's men during the three hour march. For example the outside men held ropes to "corral in" the troops, so they wouldn't lose touch with each other in the dark of the night.

As Benson had recommended, in the dark the men were indeed marching to Magersfontein in quarter column, packed closely together, so they wouldn't lose touch with one another.

But this meant they were also "packed together like sardines" and very vulnerable to massed rifle fire. No matter where an enemy shot, he would hit someone.

That night the plan had been for the men to spread out before the Boers discovered their presence. Alas, General Wauchope waited a tad too long to deploy the men...

Over the next two years Benson would became famous for his long night marches, followed by a ferocious dawn attack which surprised the Boers.

In fact, as Benson lay dying, during the Battle of Brakenlaagte, in October 1901, among his last words were, "No more night marches..."

A Brush With History: It is thrilling to ponder that during the evening before the surprise night march on Magersfontein, Major Benson was intensely leafing through this very book at General Methuen's headquarters at Modder River, to make sure that he was going absolutely "by the book" and not forgetting something vital.

A lot of lives depended on his sense of direction and leadership on that fateful night, and he knew it!

As a junior officer, he was not one to take needless chances. In fact we know that Benson, at great personal risk, scouted out the terrain he was to lead the men in the dark of night.

As it was, he guided the men unerringly to the right location in spite of the dark and a raging rain storm.

But others were more cavalier.

 

 

 


The Fatal Mistake:
We do know that General Methuen - who ordered Wauchope to make the night attack - did not read the Officer's Note Book, which states clearly:

"A careful reconnaissance of ground to be traversed is always necessary; if this can be carried out during the previous night so much the better, otherwise it must be done by day."

General Buller had sent Methuen one of his war balloons for this very purpose but Methuen was so sure of himself he chose not to use it. And so missed seeing the miles of Boer trenches set far out from the foot of the hills of Magersfontein.

This lapse in generalship permitted the Boers to spring a surprise of their own.

Below, Canadian historian John Goldi stands on the exact spot where the night march came to an abrupt and tragic end and where Wauchope and scores of British soldiers were killed. The memorial and mass grave top is just to the right of the camera.

 

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Letter, Col. GE Benson - October 17, 1901
Orig. letter - Size - 30 x 40 cm
Found - Gardiner, ME

Pretoria, 17.10.01

Messrs. Cobbalt & Sons,

Dear Sir,

I think I asked you to discontinue the port after October. I now write to say I wish it to be sent as usual after you receive this.

When Christmas approaches I think something special in the way plum pudding, mince pies etc. might be sent. A light cake then would be acceptable - or shortbread.

Yrs truly
GE Benson Col

Address as before.

Bogus Signatures

So many signatures of prominent people are faked, especially on paintings, either on pictures which have never had signatures, or where a lesser artist's name has been removed and replaced with a more salable one.

So the nagging question remains for all autograph seekers - is the signature real?

Is our signature really that of Major Benson, or did some antique seller just write it in to increase the value of the book?

Trying to find signatures of men like Benson, who make a meteoric but brief turn on the stage of history, can be difficult.

We spent years looking for corroboration, writing hither and yon hoping for supporting proof.

Without luck.

Then out of the blue... a post on ebay caught our eye...

Is it a match?

Judging by the variation in the thickness and thinness of the letters, it looks like Col. Benson even used the same type of writing tool for both the signature in our book and for the letter he wrote two years later.

The letter was to a provisioner who was to supply him with treats for the coming holiday season.

As it was, Col. Benson would never live to see the port and mince pies, which he was ordering, probably for his officers for the Christmas festivities in Pretoria.

Only 14 days later he would fight his last fight, on October 30, 1901, in a ferocious fight at Brakenlaagte, some 120 miles southeast of Pretoria, and die of his wounds.

No doubt the port he ordered was raised in solemn salute to his memory that sad Christmas Day...

Go to General Wauchope & Black Week
Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996-1999-2005

Col. GE Benson

He died October 31st, 1901, of wounds received in action near Brakenlaagte some 40 miles south of Middelburg, east of Pretoria.

He was the son of William Benson Allerwash, Northumberland, was born in May 1861, and educated at Harrow.  He entered the Royal Artillery as a Lieutenant in 1880, being promoted Captain July 1888, Brevet Major March 1896, Major February 1898, brevet Lieutenant Colonel November 1900, and Colonel May 1901.  He served in the Soudan Campaign, 1885, and was  present at  the engagement of Hasheen (slightly wounded), and at the destruction of Tamai, receiving the medal with clasp, and the Khedive's star. 

His next experience of active service was with the expedition to Ashanti, under Sir Francis Scott, in 1895, when he received the brevet of Major and the star.  He also served with the Dongola Expeditionary  Force under Lord (then Sir Herbert) Kitchener, in 1896, as Brigade Major, Mounted  Corps, until invalided, including the engagement at Firket and the operations at Hafir, being mentioned in despatches, and receiving the Fourth Class of the Order of the Osmanieh, and the Khedive's medal with two clasps.  He was also in the Nile Expedition of 1898, in command of a force on special service in Kassala district, and was awarded the medal.  He was Brigade Major Royal Artillery at Aldershot from January 1st, 1892, to December 31st, 1894. 

Colonel Benson was selected for special service in South Africa, and served with the Kimberley Relief Force under Lieutenant General Lord Methuen.  After the battle of Modder River, he took the place of Lieutenant Colonel Northcott, who had been killed, as DAAG, was present at the action of Magersfontein, and the relief of Kimberley. 

At Magersfontein he guided the Highland Brigade during the night march, and with unerring accuracy to the point of the hill he had previously at great personal risk reconnoitered. 

He was mentioned in dispatches March 1900, and November of that year, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel November 29, 1900.  A few weeks later he was appointed staff officer to the Rustenburg command, and in May 1901, was given local rank as colonel.  

The column which he commanded was attacked on October 31st, in a deluge of mist and blinding rain.  The Boers under Louis Botha, Grobler and Oppermann in overwhelming numbers, swept down on a ridge held by the rear­guard of Colonel Benson's force, and here 123 men out of a total of 160 fell.  Colonel Benson, who at once went to the point of danger, was twice wounded; but continued to give his orders directing and exhorting those under him to hold out.  In this engagement, in addition to Colonel Benson, twelve other officers were killed and sixteen wounded, but the main body and the convoy were saved.  This action has been described as one of the most hotly contested and desperate of the campaign.

Right, the Paths of Glory; Benson's grave.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fabulous signed compass used by Canadian Bill Bolt, on the Western Front, during World War I, when he served as a lieutenant.

Signed items by themselves are fabulous. But when they are accompanied by a photo of the owner as well, it is beyond compare.

Compasses were still important in World War I, when men had to find their way, often in the dark, or under fire, in strange woods or in unfamiliar countryside.

Go to Bill Bolt's other stuff


Signed WWI Compass, Lt. William Bolt, 1918
Orig. compass - Image Size - 16 cm unfolded
Found - Burlington, ON





The two pages here contain all the information the book has on night attacks.

No doubt Major Benson studied them most carefully, over and over.

Quite possibly the schoolbook easiness and textbook precision with which everything is laid out could lull one into a false sense of security.

Especially the positioning of the enemy's sentry and picket and distances of 100 yards around which to outflank and silence them.

As it was, the Boers - sentries or pickets in the trenches - were many hundreds of yards out from the foot of Magersfontein where their horses were corralled.

Apparently they had not read this book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cautionaries about the usefulness of night marches at Magersfontein are worth noting. Two points say the enemy should be disorganized and not expect the attack. This hardly applied to the Boers at Magersfontein.

This was very early in the war and the British were still grossly underestimating the fighting genius of their Boer adversaries.

The Boers were hardly disorganized and were razor edge sensitive about the movement of Methuen's forces. They had been watching them for two weeks and, with telescopes from the top of Magersfontein, must have seen his huge army getting ready for something.

The cautionary about "great risk" certainly proved true in this instance

The Fatal March: Play the movie below explaining the events as they unrolled that fatal night at Magersfontein.


Magersfontein - Dec. 11, 1899


The Highland Brigade was decimated, and retreated, leaving the Boers in command of the battlefield. The Boers carried on their guerrilla mode of warfare against the British, alarmingly successfully for two and a half more years. Not a British general could catch this wily and ingenious foe.

General Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief for the last year and a half of the conflict, despaired of ever ending a war his generals could not seem to win.

But in 1901 he finally found a column commander - alone among his field officers - who was winning spectacular victories against the Boer guerrillas. His specialty - vigorous night marches over long distances, followed by a dawn attack on a sleeping enemy.

His name - Col. G.E. Benson, of Magersfontein fame.

Unhappily, Col. Benson's successes were short-lived. He was killed in battle at Brakenlaagte, Oct. 30, 1901.

It was only through an accident of history that the Canadians were not marching to disaster at Magersfontein. They had only arrived in South Africa - mostly amateurs with no war experience - a few weeks before.

Their commander, Col. William Otter, was eager to please the British by demanding his men deploy to Modder River for the coming offensive.

Major Buchan, his deputy, strenuously opposed putting his greenhorns into the line of fire till they could learn from which end a rifle shoots...

Larry Buchan, whom the men loved, as much as they did not like Otter, saved a lot of lives that day.



When Kitchener heard of the death of his most successful field officer he almost went mad, locking himself in his room for days, refusing to eat or be consoled. How could he possibly end the war now, without Benson?

A rare treasure, indeed, is this valuable book, bearing testimony to a most catastrophic event in the life of the British Army. And yet also, it remains a wonderful memento - and an emotional link - to one of the British Empire's finest soldiers.

Lt. General Sir Henry Rawlinson: As well as writing the Officer's Note-Book, Rawlinson fought in India, the Sudan, the Boer War, and became a leading British General during World War I.

After the war he commanded the allied armies vainly sent to unseat the new Bolshevik Government in Northern Russia. Oh, and Canadians were there too...

Go to Canada's Siberian Bugle