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Bacon Battle Prints (1900) - 1

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Battle of Omdurman - Khartoum, Sudan - 1898

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Battle of Omdurman, Sept. 2, 1898
Orig. lithograph - Image size - 22" x 30"
Found - London, ON
Signed GW Bacon & Co. Ltd., Bacon's Battle Pictures #1, in orig. glass & gesso frame
Victorian Battle Prints: To Victorians, battle prints were television, and popular items for framing, among both rich and poor. They celebrated heroic exploits of the Soldiers of the Queen in far off countries, and tried to give the public a visual sense of the places, the men, and the deeds that won the Empire. Battle prints were almost always placed in simple oak or minimal gesso frames.

GW Bacon & Co. Ltd. started issuing their unique kind of battle prints in the 1880s. Colour printing for the masses, was in its infancy and Bacon capitalized in combining advances in colour printing with the fabulous exploits of the Victorian army in exotic locales around the globe.

Typical is the Bacon print of the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898 (left), where General Kitchener's massive walls of British rifle and machine gun fire cut down 11,000 Arab tribesmen, while suffering only some 48 killed himself.

The print - which was probably brought to Canada by a British immigrant as a souvenir of his campaigning days - makes a good attempt at trying to show the absolute masses of bodies piling up in front of the Maxim guns.

Exhilarating! Young Winston Churchill (above) was here as a young lieutenant, and wrote "How exhilarating, to be fired on without effect!"

But the carpet of dead bodies gave Lord Kitchener and his soldiers a false sense of invincibility, when they faced the Boers only months later.

For the fifty years since the Crimean War, British soldiers had fought only "Fuzzy-Wuzzies," non-white, primitive tribesmen using spears and swords, or outdated rifles.

When war with the Boers broke out, British soldiers would be facing Europeans armed with up to date rifles for the first time since 1855. They were in for a deadly surprise.

What Did Haig Know And When Did He Know It? Seeing what devastation Maxim machine guns can wreak on an attacker, who never even got close, even when the weapons were out in the open, should have taught the British General Staff something. The Bacon artist certainly got the message.

What would happen, do you suppose, to an attacker, if you placed the machine guns in trenches behind barbed wire, and then hampered the assailant by making him climb over an obstacle field of barbed wire and a sea of mud and water?

The Butcher of the Somme: The thought apparently never crossed the mind of General Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief during World War I, though he was a young officer at Omdurman and saw the thousands of dead Muslim tribesmen. "The machine gun," said Haig, "is a much overrated weapon." So, in 1916, he ordered his men to advance against German trenches and machine guns. 60,000 men went down in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the worst day of casualties in the history of the British Army.

Battle of Talana Hill - Dundee, Natal - 1899

Bacon's South African Battle Pictures: Boer War Bacon prints are huge, 22 x 30". Each panorama was made up of all the highlights of each battle being carefully worked into the scene and identified with a numbered key on the bottom. To help viewers tell the units apart - since all were now dressed in the new, all khaki field dress - the artist took the liberty of painting the men in their coloured, dress uniforms. It gives these early Bacon prints a strange sort of "Napoleonic" feel, reminiscent of the time when men - like peacocks - really did "dress up" not "down" to walk on to the battlefield.

About a dozen Bacon prints were issued during the Boer War, all on specific actions during the "triumphant" phase of the war, from October 1899 to June 1900. Though the war went on for almost two, increasingly more dreadful years, no other Bacon prints were issued. No one - even in Britain - wanted to publish pictures of what Lord Kitchener and the "Gentlemen in Kharki" were doing in South Africa.

The romance had gone out of war; the Victorian dreams of glory on the battlefield evaporated in South Africa. It was 1901. A new century and the first of the modern "total wars" had begun. And now that white people were dying by the tens of thousands it was no cause for celebration. Or for Bacon to make more prints.

But the prints that remain give us a wonderful bird's eye view of the story as it evolved for Victorians in pub and parlour, so long ago...

Talana Hill: The first Bacon print of the war was on the first battle, Talana Hill, at Dundee, in the British territory of Natal (left), Oct. 20, 1899.

Faced with an unavoidable war, the Boers had struck the opening blow by invading British territory, here at Dundee, in Natal. They had swept in from the far (northern side) and occupied the top of Talana Hill. In the morning they opened fire on the British tent camp on the flats below. Heroic British General Penn-Symons (below) led the charge up the hill to remove the offending Boers from British soil.

The print correctly shows waves of closely packed soldiers - hey it worked at Omdurman - charging Boer sharpshooters on Talana Hill (left).

But this time, hundreds of Tommies were shot down, including General Penn-Symons himself, while trying to rally his faltering men (above and below) amid a hail of Boer bullets.

The British were slow to catch on. They were professionals, and had always been paid to stand in the open "like soldiers" and "have at" the enemy, whether Dervish tribesmen in the Sudan, or Zulu warriors in Zululand. It was all about pride. So they polished up their brass and silver swords and ornaments before a battle.

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The Boers were amateurs. No one was paying them to get killed. They thought life was too precious to make a stand man to man, and out in the open. They preferred to hide for protection behind rocks, shooting from cover with modern high-powered Mauser rifles from Germany - lots of great targets with all that silver glittering in the field below. And then, of course, run, when the odds shifted. Sounds sensible today; but then British officers thought it cowardly and inglorious. No British officer would ever be caught dead doing that! So they were caught dead not doing that!

This Bacon vignette of the death of Penn-Symons stands for scores of brave British officers who had a death rate far out of proportion to their numbers, valiantly doing their duty in trying to rally their bewildered troops in the opening months of the war.


Winston was here: The grave of Penn-Symons today. Winston Churchill was one visitor who stood here and paid his respects to a man he much admired as "a capital fellow," and as an officer who embodied the finest qualities of a Victorian soldier.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Battle of Dundee, Oct. 20, 1898
Orig. lithograph - Image size - 22" x 30"
Found - Hay on Wye, UK
Signed GW Bacon & Co. Ltd., Bacon's South African Battle Pictures #1


Talana Hill:

The battlefield at Talana Hill is virtually unchanged since British Tommies charged across the grass and up its slopes over a century ago.

Pam McFadden, Curator of the battlefield Museum - in a photo with the same perspective as the Bacon print - stands at the heart of the battlefield in front of the cairn that marks the spot where Penn-Symons fell. (She is standing where Penn-Symons is falling in the large print, above.) Comparing the two views gives a good illustration of the amount of artistic license Bacon prints employed. People at home would never know, and hey, those who had been there were just thrilled to see a print of the battle.

Penn-Symons would be the first of three British generals to die in the opening months of the war, a victim of their soldierly upbringing, as well as their sense of professional pride at leading their men into battle, especially when the going got tough against a determined and deadly foe.

A Hill Too Far: At Talana, artillery (below) was being used over longer distances than ever before, not like the point blank range as at the spearmen at Omdurman (top). This created a whole new set of problems, in long distance communication, between infantrymen charging at the front, and the gunners they left behind. Guns were now enormously lethal over long distances, but battlefield instructions were still medieval, being conveyed by primitive bugle and semaphore flags.

This led to new tragedies for the British when their artillery fired on their own soldiers, after they took the top of Talana Hill, killing officers and men alike. With the extended range of new artillery pieces, the front-line fighting was too far away for gunners to be able tell Boer and Briton apart - well illustrated in the print (top and right).

The Boers - quite sensibly, if a tad ingloriously - had long ago, fled on their horses.

When Khaki Kills: But the Bacon artist misrepresented a major change that had taken place in warfare - the disappearance of coloured uniforms on the battlefield. This contributed mightily to the British "Friendly Fire" casualties at Talana.

In days of old, the multi-coloured uniforms of different regiments, as well as of friend and foe - think of the "Blue and the Grey" of the American Civil War - had allowed generals to see who was where, at any time on the battlefield, and so plan their next moves.

Now that all the British were in khaki, they looked just like the Boers at long distance. The British gunners - unable to tell them apart - killed them for it.

Battle of Elandslaagte - Elandslaagte, Natal - 1899

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Battle of Elandslaagte, Oct. 21, 1899
Orig. lithograph - Image size - 22" x 30"
Found - London, ON
Signed GW Bacon & Co. Ltd., Bacon's South African Battle Pictures #2, in orig. glass & oak frame
Elandslaagte: One day after Talana Hill, on Oct. 21, 1899, the Battle of Elandslaagte, just a short distance south of Dundee, produced Bacon Print #2

The Boers had taken over the railway station there and held a song fest and party with British captives in the evening. In the morning the main British Army appeared and the Boers retreated to the top of a nearby hill.

As at Talana Hill, the British once again, stormed a hilltop, but General Ian Hamilton suggested that this time, they stay more spread out "in extended order" as they charged, to make poorer targets for Boer sharpshooters

Hamilton's innovation was a first for European armies, and marked the end for the famous British "Thin Red Line" which now was little short of suicide when advancing on experts using modern clip-loading magazine rifles.

Far outnumbering their quarry, the British swept up the hill as the Boers, once again, fled on horseback, hoping to fight another day...

The Charge of the Lancers at Elandslaagte: Then occurred an event given pride of place in the Bacon print in the left foreground - the Charge of the Lancers upon the fleeing Boers. Just as the sun was going down, the cavalry swept in upon the fleeing farmers, from behind, and in minutes, killed over 60 with lances and swords. Only the darkness ended the carnage.

Corporal Kelly (above) won brief renown for spearing two Boers at once, just before he himself was killed. But these were destined to be the last heroic pictures that would ever be published of lancers at work.

Never again would the Boers allow themselves to be caught in the open.

The charge also sounded the death knell for the lancers, though at the moment of their triumph, they could not know it. Their day in history had passed.

For centuries the cavalry had been the senior service of the British army. Cavalrymen refused on principle to fight on foot, but charged as a group, to close with the enemy at full speed and shock him into disarray and defeat. When the enemy had spears or inaccurate rifles that took long to reload, this worked.

Now the cavalry was rendered impotent by an expert enemy shooting rapidly, and accurately, over long distances, from inaccessible hillsides.

Trumpeter Shurlock: Elandslaagte also produced a national hero in 14 year old bugler John Shurlock who grabbed a revolver and shot three Boers dead (right with pistol and bugle). That night this teenager was hoisted on proud shoulders and carried in triumph through the British camp.

The Bacon print proudly puts Shurlock front and centre on the print. Right, a lantern slide also gives him pride of place at the front of the charge. He is hatless in both so you can easily tell him apart from his helmeted companions.

To the adoring British public, Mrs. Shurlock praised her son, "He is a brave, good and generous son." He was an all-around ideal for a Victorian boy. He would not be the last "boy hero" in this war.

And After: After Elandslaagte, Boer Mauser rifles, accurate to two kms, cut the cavalrymen down long before they could even see the enemy they were trying to charge and destroy with sword and lance.

With modern long-range rifles, the cavalry disappeared as an effective fighting force on the battlefields of the Boer War. Cavalry officers were outraged when General George White, besieged, with thousands of cavalrymen, for months inside Ladysmith, opined sadly, "Well at least the horses can be used as food." Perhaps he knew that a grand military tradition had come to an end.

The MI: The "new cavalryman," that arose during the Boer War, was the Mounted Infantry. Take a foot soldier, with an infantry rifle, put him in the saddle and his rifle in a "bucket," then ride him, and his fellow MIs near a battlefield, have them get off and fight on foot, while one holds the horses...

No traditional cavalryman would submit to take part in this kind of undignified warfare. No horsemanship was called for; no glorious charge was required; no bugle calls to glory! Even the odd cavalry horse was heard to say, "I would rather be eaten." And so in Ladysmith, at least, they were.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Trumpeter Shurlock, Elandslaagte
Orig. glass lantern slide - Size - 3.5" x 3.5"
Found - London, ON

Elandslaagte Today:

The battlefield is totally unchanged today.

Right Canadian historian John Goldi, showing the style that won him a Gold Medal for On-camera Host at the Houston International Film and Television Awards, stands on the hilltop where the Boers were waiting for the British to "storm the heights." They then scrambled down the slope to the horses down below and rode off across the plain to the right.

The slaughter of the Boers took place across the dark area of the plain, as the Lancers charged in from the left on the fleeing Boers.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Battle of Belmont, Nov. 23, 1899
Orig. lithograph - Image size - 22" x 30"
Found - Hay on Wye, UK
Signed GW Bacon & Co. Ltd., Bacon's South African Battle Pictures #4

Battle of Belmont - Cape Colony - 1899

Belmont: In the far west Lord Methuen (below) was trying to clear the Boers from the British towns they had captured along the railway. On Nov. 23, 1899, the Battle of Belmont took place, producing Bacon Print #4.

At Belmont the Boers were, once again, occupying a group of hills above the town.

Methuen's battle procedure was traditional: march the men up to battle stations, unlimber the guns and soften up the target on top of the hills as everyone watched, then order the infantry to "Take that hill boys!"

The men would charge across the flats and sweep over the Boers on the hilltops. Methuen lost far more men - who had to advance in the open - than the Boers, who were firing from rocky kopjes.

The Boers would wait till the Tommies were good targets then shot them down quite methodically. As the Bacon print shows there were lots of targets and they were often really close together

The Boers fled on horseback as soon as the British got too close, heading further north along the railway. Methuen's men were mostly on foot, so the Boers easily escaped. And since Methuen had far more men he was willing to lose than they did, he won.

The Bacon print (left) shows Methuen about to order the charge, as a lancer gallops up for instructions on what to do. Lancers - the elite arm of the British army - were perplexed about this new style warfare carried on by the Boers. How could they charge with lances poised up rugged hilltops when the enemy refused to come out and show himself?

The Guns: Bacon gives the guns special note because they were not the traditional army artillery - though it was there too - but the Navy's! The British felt they were outgunned by the Boers who were using the latest Creusot guns from France that could shoot further, more accurately, with bigger shells than any gun the British had.

So Capt. Percy Scott hit on the idea of dismounting big guns from British naval ships. He designed a special carriage to transport them and soon British sailors were pulling monstrous 4.7" naval guns across the African veldt.

By November these guns were in the campaign, accompanying Buller's advance in Natal, and Methuen's push along the western railway.

Though the key at the bottom of the print notes the presence of the British naval guns, they are not drawn with anything even remotely accurate, though they were highly distinctive with their extremely long barrels. But to a Bacon artist, a gun is a gun.

Canadians at Belmont:

Two weeks after this battle, the Royal Canadians under Colonel Otter, (below right), arrived to hold these hills against Boer attack. They were supposed to join Methuen's army but Major Buchan, Otter's second in command argued strongly against it saying the men need some training before they could be sent to fight the Boers. Otter objected to the delay, and then gave in.

To get an idea of the kind of men Otter wanted to put in the firing line right away

Go to The Sardinian

Thanks to Buchan the Canadians would be at Belmont for two months learning the art of war. They were soon bored out of their minds. They would write their names on the rocks in the hills which the Boers had recently vacated. To see lots more rock writing...

The heights at Belmont looking west and down on to the plain from where the British were massing and the guns shooting. The rock defences of the Boers are seen in the foreground and a monument to their dead, surveys what was for a very short time in history, a horrific place of death.

 

 

 

 

 

Go to More Belmont Inscriptions

Battle of Modder River - Cape Colony - 1899

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Battle of Modder River, Nov. 28, 1899
Orig. lithograph - Image size - 22" x 30"
Found - Port Hope, ON
Signed GW Bacon & Co. Ltd., Bacon's South African Battle Pictures #5
Modder River: After the Battle of Belmont, Methuen moved north along the railway (left) towards the Modder River, where five days later, on Nov. 28, 1899, the Battle of Modder River took place and Bacon had print #5.

Here Methuen was surprised by the Boers in an ambush. Military tradition - and good sense - dictates that an enemy will entrench behind a river. It would be foolhardy to do so in front because a river at your back would cut off your retreat, besides making your supporting supply route impossible. Methuen actually expected the Boers to be, not on the river flats at all, but - like before - in the hills, which at Modder River were a few miles beyond.

Unfortunately the Boers being farmers were not all that good at reading, especially of British military manuals. So Boer Generals de la Rey decided to dig in where the British least expected them - in camouflaged trenches in front of the river.

As the unsuspecting Tommies crowded in, the Boers opened fire resulting in hundreds of casualties for Methuen

The Bacon print shows the heavy guns that were brought up again to pound the Boer defences. In spite of it all, it was the Tommies who were pinned down all day in the field without protection. The Boers melted away during the night.

Methuen had won the Battle of Modder River, one more time losing more men than the Boers.

The Bacon artist has finally decided to show the men all dressed in khaki as they really were. And it shows the lancers still hanging about bewildered, looking for a job - any job...

There's not much else they can do when faced with an entrenched enemy using superior fire power, except die, when exposed sitting on their horses out in the open. A Tommy can lie down behind an anthill or rock and wait out the fusilade of fire. But not a lancer.

The Bacon artist inadvertently records that the day of the lancer is passing...


The Boers had fled but not far. They were retiring to a hill at a place called Magersfontein (left), where de la Rey would have another nasty surprise for Lord Methuen as his men walked across this plain.

Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996-1999-2005