The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 3 No 2 - December 1974

A Chaplain in the Boer War

by D.F. Gibbs

The Rev. E. St. C. Hill, MC, is best known for his ministrations to the South African troops at Delville Wood, during which action he lost an arm. He later returned to South Africa as a national hero, but his undoubted talents as a war chaplain were first realized during the Second Anglo-Boer War. We have a detailed account of his activities and views in this war from his diary, which includes many letters, covering the period July 1899 to April 1901. It is now in the archives of St. John's College, Johannesburg, where Hill subsequently became Headmaster.

Eustace St. Clair Hill was born in the year 1873, the son of a Major-General from a family steeped in military tradition. He was educated at Lancing College in Sussex, perhaps the best known of the High Church Woodard foundations. Subsequently after three years at Christ Church, Oxford, he entered theological college and was ordained in 1897. He spent merely one year in Wrexham, a grim industrial town in North Wales, before sailing to South Africa to take up the post, unusual for a man aged 26, of Chaplain to St. Peter's Home, a ladies' seminary. He had been in Grahamstown less than a year when he wrote to the G.O.C. Imperial Forces in Cape Town on 24 July, 1899, offering his services as Chaplain in the event of war.

In the main his diary and letters throw light on four aspects of the war. Firstly, by the very nature of his travels with the Imperial Forces the military historian can learn something about the various campaigns and battles. Secondly, his close contact with the troops - particularly when they needed him most - paints a vivid picture of the human aspects of this war. Thirdly, Hill gives us a completely typical British religious view of the Boers, and his implicit belief in the righteousness of the British cause is remarkable. And fourthly, his daily routine gives us an idea of the role of an army Chaplain in time of war. It is along these lines that we must examine the contents of his diary and letters.

On the purely military aspect of the war there are two distinct phases to Hill's service. From October 1899 to April 1900 he was associated with Lord Methuen's force in the advance to relieve Kimberley and later Mafeking. The battles of Modder River and Magersfontein were two of the major engagements in this first phase of the war. His second campaign (after three months sick leave) dated from July 1900 to April 1901 when the war had changed from conventional warfare to guerilla fighting, and here Hill was involved in the tedious, incessant marching and riding, endeavouring to round up small bands of Boers. The lack of success in this campaign led to the subsequent adoption of 'scorched earth' tactics.

At Orange River Station, Hill was chaplain to the Church of England troops. The Division left the station on 21 November for the advance on Kimberley, and two days later Hill saw action for the first time at Belmont. After the engagement he visited the wounded: 'The Guards had suffered severely in their charge up the Kopje, the wounds being mostly in the thighs - many of the men looked soft and towney.'

The advance continued and Graspan was taken on 25th. At 4.30 a.m. on 28 November, and with no rations since the previous evening, the army was anticipating breakfast at Modder River Station. The men advanced across the open veld until they were suddenly faced with the most ferocious rifle-fire, and there they were pinned for the rest of the day: 'The sun was terrific, and our men had to lie on their empty stomachs with their backs exposed to an awful grilling. Thirst overpowered some and when a water cart was seen, many preferred risking bullets to enduring thirst (something a newcomer has had no practice in) and paid in many cases for their drink with their lives.'

However, the British left flank troops managed to cross the river where they held on grimly awaiting reinforcements which did not arrive that day. The Boers pulled out that night and the next day Methuen established camp at Modder River Station. The day was spent burying the dead and tending the wounded. Hill mentions that there was much criticism of the kilt, and those of the Highlanders who had been pinned down the whole day under the gruelling sun came to the Medical Officers with blisters on the back of their legs the size of hens' eggs; the treatment was simple, a sharp slap of the hand by an orderly and a lump of grease slapped into the open blister!

If the battle of Modder River was a hard-earned victory, Magersfontein was an unmitigated disaster, the second calamity of Black Week. The might of the British army had been very successfully challenged by a handful of farmers. Hill, like many others, was saddened, but not necessarily fair, when writing about Magersfontein: 'I felt miserable at our disgrace and no amount of excuses will ever make me feel a wild dash could not have won the position and that with a one tenth of the loss sustained by the retreat.'

It must be remembered however that Hill's was a very traditional Victorian approach to war, characterized by disciplined and courageous infantry charges supported by accurate artillery. On many occasions in his diary he mentions that he has been preaching to the troops about the evils of cowardice, and he spends much time expounding to his servant the Christian duty of the soldier under fire. Hill never lacked for courage himself, and he suffered cowards not at all. That the war was not over by Christmas was a serious blow to his, and England's, pride in her fighting men. But at Magersfontein it is probably true to say that the lack of accuracy on the part of the artillery, made it impossible for the infantry, however brave, to breach the Boer lines.'(1)

In January 1900 Hill was ordered to leave Modder River to join the forces at Orange River Station, since a regular Chaplain to Forces had arrived from England to serve the troops at the former. At Orange River, Hill found enteric had struck, and he spent most of his time visiting the sick and burying the dead. This unpleasant routine continued for several months, broken only by the arrival of Roberts and Kitchener on 8 February: 'Roberts visited the hospitals and Kitchener went on to examine the Orange River Bridge, actions which seemed characteristic of the men, I thought.'

Unfortunately soon afterwards Hill himself collapsed with fever, and in April sailed for England on three months' sick leave. By the time he arrived back in Cape Town in July 1900 the first, and formal phase of the war was over. However, the British troops had still to round up the many Boer commandos who had refused to join the Hands-Uppers. For the next ten months Hill served mainly with the 15th and 16th Brigades in the Senekal district in the north-eastern Free State, endeavouring to round up the Boers. His diary records the tedious nature of the campaign, constantly on the move, riding into and out of Senekal, Harrismith, Bethlehem and Vrede. The Boers shooting at the troops from the ridges and hill tops, and then dashing away on their ponies when the artillery got their range. Ambush was always a possibility. The commandos operated in groups of 15-100, and it was well-nigh impossible for the less mobile British infantry and cavalry to round them up.

Engaged in this type of warfare Hill developed the greatest respect for the Imperial Yeomanry. They were always out in front, or on the flanks of a march, to 'draw the fire', and theirs was not a pleasant task with such accurate shots as the Boers. Many of the Yeomanry came from aristocratic backgrounds, and their fox-hunting experience was invaluable whilst in the saddle. Their zeal was such that they had enlisted at 0.5d per day instead of the usual 5/-. But their skill and bravery made no impact until Kitchener adopted his 'scorched earth' policy. Any farm from which shots were fired at the British, or was known to have harboured the enemy, was razed to the ground, though in point of fact this was never thoroughly done, and the furniture was removed (at least in Hill's experience) before the shell was set alight. He describes one such burning: 'It was a sad sight - the old Dutch farmer and a wife who looked older sitting utterly dazed by their still smoking ruin. Both absolutely silent brooding over their belief in Predestination and allowing it to encourage their natural apathy and slackness.' And in a letter to his mother in September 1900 he writes: 'An effective picture of the War could be painted - just a burnt hillside, a dusty veld track, charred farmstead and a dead ox or so by the wayside.' Thus Hill gives us a good idea of the nature of this anti-guerilla campaign. The Boers used their knowledge of the vast South African veld to make the task of their opponents tedious, and on occasions impossible. It required ten British soldiers to round up one Boer. But as we have seen by the very nature of his duties the Chaplain is more concerned with the human, than the military aspect of war, and it is in this field that Hill's diary and letters are perhaps of the greatest interest.

After his first engagement under fire at Belmont, he was chatting to the wounded when he came across one Bevan of the 5th Mounted Infantry who: 'told me how his great ambition had been to be in active service, "and now," he said, "I've had it, and what was it? A bullet from an unseen foe and a cripple for life."'

At the battles of Modder River and Magersfontein he described the suffering of the British troops in the un- accustomed summer heat of South Africa, and then when dusk came the horrors of cleaning up the battlefield - the groans of the dying, the chaos, the thirst - all are vividly described, and Hill always on his feet, carrying water, consoling the wounded, praying with the dying, helping the stretcher-bearers. But these deeds were not only done under cover of darkness. After the first battle he received a curt note from Lord Methuen to the effect that if he was seen in the front line again he would be sent home. But perhaps the most poignant feature of this human tale is the collection of letters received from bereaved parents and widows. It was his custom to write to the next of kin of all those killed to whom he had ministered. Some of the letters received in reply are pitiful, and one can imagine the feelings of those in Britain losing their men 6 000 miles away in an unknown, alien country, un a war which many believed to be totally unjustified. One A. M. Connolly of Westmeath in Ireland wrote: 'Dear Sir, Very many thanks for your kind letter telling me about my dear son's last moments, poor fellow. I thank God for permitting that comfort to be given him, of receiving the blessed sacrament before his death . . . Still it is hard to part with our loved ones - we all feel it very much. He is the first gone from us . . . I am glad he thought of us and remembered us to the last.'

The human tale of Hill's diary is undoubtedly a sorry one, particularly as so many of the liberal thinking British, professional soldiers included, doubted the justification of the war. To Hill there was no doubt whatever, and his forthright views epitomize the moral self-righteousness of the later Victorians. In a letter to his uncle at the outbreak of war he wrote: 'I feel sure our cause is right, after all, the treatment of the natives is the distinguishing feature between the Dutch and us, this is their land and we treat them in the main as men, the Dutch as slaves; and if we err in indulgence, it is because we are too eager to take Our Lord's Orders literally, rather than their disbelief in his missionary orders and trust in the powers of humanity, black or white. I know we are bad, but our best men represent NT, their OT* in the main, NT progresses, OT stagnates, NT wins and cant is nowhere; God keep me and all from national pride and may our nation and church be used for much in forwarding God's kingdom on earth.' And subsequently to his mother he wrote: 'I think the British Public are beginning to see that we were not the aggressors ... I trust that this will give a death blow to Dutch cant ...' Indeed such were Hill's views that he was known by his messmates at Modder River as the 'wicked parson'. Yet we must see his views against the background of imperialistic ideas at the end of the 19th century. The Public School/Oxbridge upbringing Hill had received reinforced those ideas developed by Kipling, Rhodes, Chamberlain and the like, of British economic, political and moral supremacy. There was no doubt in the minds of these people that British civilization was the best the world had to offer, and the Christian ethic was an integral part of this civilization. The traditional later Victorian believed implicitly in this paramountcy, and Hill tolerated no other religious ethic.

The task of a Chaplain to Forces in time of war is difficult to define and depends much on the initiative of the incumbent. We have seen that in time of action Hill kept as near to the front line as possible, praying with the dying, carrying water to the wounded, assisting the stretcher-bearers. Some of his fellow officers seem to have objected to his presence in the front line, but for the most part he was respected for his undaunted bravery, whilst after the fight there was always the unpleasant task of burying the dead, and writing to the next of kin.

When on campaign Hill messed with the officers, and appears to have been accepted quite naturally by them except for one instance when having preached against looting an argument was provoked with one and resulted in: 'my firing up at his coupling of parsons and old women together and asking him to have a round with the gloves with me.' Unfortunately the consequence of this little contretemps is not recorded. But Hill was very much aware of the dangers of too much fraternization with the officers: his main charges were the ranks and, in organizing voluntary services, he invariably asked the officers to keep away: 'My friend the officer is a useless nucleus, no tommy will ever join a central group of officers.' However he soon learnt the art of organizing such services, and on Sundays he would take as many as five or six, often travelling considerable distances by horse to the different regiments. He also made a point of regular visits to the sick and wounded, no more so than when he was transferred to Orange River Station in January, 1900: 'Enteric very bad here making me very busy in the hospital and cemetery.'

Hill may have been accepted, but he was not always popular. We have already seen that he was known as 'the wicked parson', and that his nature was essentially uncomprising. He came down harshly on foul language and pilfering. Whilst on the move in the north-eastern Free State he often returned chairs and other household effects which had been looted from farms, and tried to ensure that receipts were given for commandeered cattle. He was by no means a friend or supporter of the Dutch farmers, across whose lands these campaigns were taking place, but he did his best to maintain absolute honesty in all dealings. One of Hill's repeated complaints was the lack of independence of the chaplain serving in the Imperial Forces. His facilities, dress and scope of action were circumscribed by military regulations and the whim of the Commanding Officer. Hill bemoans this in the face of independent and rival dissenting missions, who soon established tents serving coffee and writing paper, and being unofficial, were in no way tied by the authorities. Hill long campaigned for an independent chaplain's Department in the army. However although the army insisted on his wearing a uniform, they required him to provide his own. Hill not surprisingly refused and on one occasion was arrested as a spy for being found wearing civilian clothes in camp. He soon took to wearing a uniform, but supplied by which party we know not. Thus Hill established for himself a job and a responsibility to those under his charge. It was during the Boer War that he developed the techniques of an army chaplain and it was this experience that made him so much loved and respected by the troops, and a national hero, in the first World War.

On leaving the north-eastern Free State in April, 1901, Hill was appointed Chaplain to the Railway Mission at Naauwpoort, combining this work with responsibilities for the large military camp there. Subsequently he joined the Community of the Resurrection and was appointed to the Staff of St. John's College in 1905. Yet in the following year he hurried off to join the forces engaged in putting down the Zulu rebellion. Again in 1914 he was one of the first to offer his services, and saw action in South West Africa and later, in Europe. Finally he became involved in the Armed Rebellion of 1922 by officiating at the burial of some of the dead. Throughout, Hill has this curious love-hate feeling for war; he always maintained that he deplored it and yet he was in the midst of any scrap that involved South African troops between 1899 and 1922. Perhaps a key to his character was a note he wrote in his diary on 26 August, 1900: 'I am bound to say my religious zeal was really secondary to my desire for adventure.'

*OT= Old Testament
NT= New Testament

1. This is not the view held by the many historians who have written about Magersfontein and the Editors disagree completely with this statement.

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