The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 3 No 2 - December 1974

Fort Amiel


The encampment of Fort Amiel at Newcastle was established in 1876 by certain companies of the 8oth Regiment (Staffordshire Volunteers) under the command of Major Charles Frederick Amiel and named after him.

Major Amiel arrived at Durban from Hong Kong on 6th March, 1876, in the ‘Orontes’ in command of 300 men of all ranks of the 80th Regiment and, after a period of quarantine owing to measles, the companies of the Regiment marched in May, 1876, up to Newcastle where they arrived in June, 1876. The move to Newcastle was strategic as a prelude to the annexation of the Transvaal on 12th April, 1877, and Amiel’s troops were in reserve for action in the Transvaal. Upon arrival at Newcastle the men made defensive works and built their own accommodation.

The remainder of the 80th Regiment sailed from Hong Kong in March of the same year under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel G. W. Twemlow and, after landing at East London, moved to King Williamstown where the Regiment remained for a year before being sent to Pietermaritzburg in August, 1877. Colonel Twemlow died in King Williamstown and Major Amiel, who had been a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel since 19th July, 1876, moved to Pietermaritzburg to command the Regiment, and was promoted as Lieutenant-Colonel on 9th November, 1877. His place at Newcastle was taken by Major H. Rowland who died on 17th November, 1877, and was buried in the Newcastle town cemetery. His place was in turn taken by Major Charles Tucker; it seems that death and promotion were swift in the 80th Regiment in 1877.

Lieutenant-Colonel Amiel, who had spent most of his service in the 80th Regiment, served with the Regiment in the Burmese War of 1852, in the Indian Campaign of 1858-59, in the Bhootan Expedition of 1865, and the Expedition to Perak of 1875-76 at the conclusion of which he was given the Brevet of Lieutenant-Colonel which, however, does not appear to have been gazetted until 19th July, 1876. Hence the reference to him as Major Amiel upon arrival at Newcastle. He retired in 1879.

Although there are scant references to Fort Amiel itself, there is ample evidence in all the contemporary accounts that the town of Newcastle was an important base for military operations from 1876 until after the Transvaal War of 1880-81 by virtue of its situation on the main road from Natal to the Transvaal. Lieutenant-Colonel N. Newnham-Davis, in his ‘The Transvaal under the Queen’, makes no mention of a fort at Newcastle when he passed through in 1877 with Colonel A. W. Durnford, R.E., but mentions that the camp of Carrington’s Horse was on the outskirts of the town, and gives a fine description of the men of this unit being trained and breaking in their new horses.

Accordingly, it seems that Fort Amiel was used mainly as a transit camp during the period preceding the Zulu War of 1879, whilst during the War it was garrisoned by men of the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment and, as mentioned, most reports refer to the stationing of troops at Newcastle at this time.

It is known from Private Edward D. McToy’s ‘A Brief History of the 13th Regiment (P.A.L.I.) in South Africa’ that the 13th Regiment passed through Newcastle in 1877, although no reference is made to Fort Amiel, and Captain James Guillet Westaway of the 13th Regiment, who died on 27th June, 1877, is buried in the Newcastle town cemetery.

The earliest reference to Fort Amiel that I have been able to find in the area is the inscription on the gravestone of Corporal Alex L. McDonald of the Army Pay Department in the Newcastle town cemetery where it is recorded that he died at Fort Amiel on 15th November, 1879.

The earliest description of Fort Amiel that I have been able to find appears in Mrs Hutchinson’s book ‘In Tents in the Transvaal’ — her husband was Lieutenant William Hutchinson of the 90th Regiment (Perthshire Volunteers) — in which she records the arrival of the Regiment at Fort Amiel about the 26th March, 1878, after marching up from Durban, as follows:
‘At the outskirts of Newcastle we were met by an officer of the detachment of troops stationed here, who most hospitably invited us to the mess. To reach the barracks, we had to cross the Incandu River, which our horses forded very respectably having, by this time, got so used to wading. Fort Amiel (called so after the Colonel of the 80th) is situated on a hill, overlooking the town, and, with very little trouble, the position could be made impregnable to any enemy of the kind that is ever likely to attack it. The barracks are simply a collection of mud houses, but even these are infinitely in advance of tents, inasmuch as you may go to sleep with a well-founded hope of finding your bedroom walls in statu quo when you wake in the morning.’

A sketch of Fort Amiel, made by Mr J. V. Bridgman, the Commissariat Officer, appeared in ‘The Graphic’ of 13th September, 1879, and is accompanied by the following descriptive notes:
‘This fort, which is used as a Hospital and Commissariat Depot, is situated on a bluff rising abruptly from the plain at the foot of the Drakensberg Mountains, as healthy a locality as could possibly have been selected. The country around is very fine, and is peculiar on account of the complete absence of trees, while a distant view of Zululand gives additional interest to the scene. The fort was built by men of the 80th Regiment, and since the commencement of the War has been garrisoned by a detachment of the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment. The defences consist of a ditch, a rampart, and a stone wall, and are considered to be sufficiently strong to defeat any attack which might be made upon it by the Zulus.’

We are informed in ‘The Illustrated London News’ of 8th February, 1879, that:
‘Newcastle has been turned into a large military camp, and, being almost halfway between the Natal coast and Pretoria, in the Transvaal, also the junction of the roads to Utrecht and Lydenburg, is one of the largest depots for stores, supplies and ammunition. Added to a large garrison regularly quartered there, troops are constantly passing backwards and forwards, requiring a large staff to attend to their requirements.’

A further mention appears in ‘The Illustrated London News’ of 28th June, 1879, as follows:
‘The line followed by the post-cart is a considerable distance from the Zulu frontier, but the dwellers along it have not considered themselves safe. At every halting-place one finds a laager of more or less formidable character. The permanent laager at Ladysmith is quite massive, and at Newcastle a permanent laager includes all the public institutions of the place, from the post-office to the law courts. Newcastle is in the second line of defence, covered by the first line and by the posts at Dundee, Doornberg, and Conference Hill. But Newcastle has little interest as a military position. There is a fort on a bluff overhanging the village, with a few huts around it, furnished with accommodation for one company of the 4th Foot. It is used as a convalescent station for General Wood’s column.’

Information obtained by Colonel George Duxbury, Director of the South African National War Museum, from the Ministry of Defence disclosed that no specific mention of Fort Amiel has been traced in War Office records still in existence in the Public Record Office, but the Department was able to furnish the following information:

‘Some record drawings of the fort area have however been traced. One dated 1878 is concerned only with the purchase of a wedge of land of 112 acres 12.5 perches extending from the NW corner of the fort, bordering the Trei Fontein Farm and containing the cemetery, from the Natal Bank on 16th April, 1878, at a total cost of £67.16.9d. The remainder are record drawings of the buildings dated 1883, which show that even at that time there was no record of the date and cost of construction and also that the remaining area of land was not transferred to the War Department by the Colonial Government until 27th November, 1885. Some details of the buildings are given in the attached statement, but there is nothing of the fort itself other than the outline of its plan. One of the drawings was however endorsed in 1884 with £1,916.6.10d expended on the construction of Fort Amiel and adjacent huts — £772 on the Fort Buildings, £828 on the huts and mess room, £316.6.10d unaccounted for”.’

Fort Amiel during the South African War
(With acknowledgements to the 'Newcastle Advertiser')

The ‘attached statement’ referred to in the previous paragraph is as follows:

‘Buildings at Fort Amiel 1883

There were 10 huts 40 feet long and 20 feet wide each housing 14 men, and 4 officers huts 23 feet 6 inches long by 14 feet 6 inches wide. There were also 4 cookhouses, 11 store huts, a canteen, offices, guard house, magazine, shell store, RE store, pack store and latrines. The officers and mens huts were built of sun dried bricks plastered on the exterior and had thatched roofs. 9 of the 11 store huts were temporary buildings and there is no record of how they were constructed. The other 2 store huts and the pack and RE stores were permanent buildings of corrugated iron. The remainder of the buildings were of burnt brick with corrugated iron roofs. The brick walls of all the buildings were 14 inches thick. The floors of the officers huts were of wood, those of the other buildings were of brick, stone or rammed concrete material. Lightning conductors were mounted on the roofs of the officers and mens huts, guard house, canteen, cookhouses and magazine. The water supply was from well water.’

It will be observed that this statement refers to the position in 1883 which was after the Transvaal War of Independence of 1880-81.

T. F. Carter in his ‘Narrative of the Boer War’ merely informs us (page 149) that:
‘In Newcastle much alarm was felt by the near approach of the Boer patrols. There was there a fort, and a couple of companies of infantry constituted the garrison, but the fort was in a defenceless state, and quite inadequate to shelter all the people living in the swamp below it, which is dignified by the name of Newcastle.’

However, a little later on he informs us (page 156) that: ‘By the 24th January (1881) Sir George Colley was ready to start from Newcastle for the border. The town of Newcastle was first placed in a state of defence, an earthwork erected here and there, the Court House and other brick buildings strengthened, and a civilian guard drilled for any case of emergency, whilst at Fort Annel (sic) the military barracks, situated on a knoll overlooking the town, but across the stream, a contingent of the 3/60th Rifles were stationed under Major Ogilvie.’ C. L. Norris-Newman in his ‘With the Boers in the Transvaal and Orange Free State in 1880-1’ tells us (page 131) that:
‘He (Sir George Colley) found there (Newcastle) everything in readiness at the camp, Fort Amiel, which is situated on an eminence over the river half a mile away from and commanding the town.’

Charles Du Val, writing in 1880, in his ‘With a Show through Southern Africa’ describes Newcastle in somewhat uncomplimentary terms as follows:
‘Newcastle was a heterogeneous mass of corrugated iron stores, canvas tents, and adobe buildings — about as utterly unsightly a combination as ever received the distinction of being called a town. It had a fort, a lot of military stationed there, two hotels; and if it hadn’t malaria then, it ought to have secured it by now, for a place more unsuited for a sanatorium I have never yet seen. The military camp was to break up the next day and move down to Estcourt; and it did. And one subaltern took a “few things” in the way of baggage with him which managed to fill two large ambulance waggons; and mine enterprising host of one of the hotels persuaded him that he would not be able to get any champagne unless he took it also: so he sold him a few dozen cases, and a cart to carry them in.’

Rider Haggard too, who farmed at Hilldrop just outside Newcastle from about 1880 until late in 1881, speaks somewhat deprecatingly of the defences of Newcastle, when he and his wife sought shelter in the town in February, 1881, when it was feared that the Boers would attack the town (see his ‘The Last Boer War’ and ‘Cetywayo and his White Neighbours’).

Fort Amiel came into its own again during the South African War for troops were stationed there throughout the War, and the numerous graves in the Newcastle town cemetery and in the Fort Amiel cemetery tell of the various units and the heavy toll of enteric. It seems that it was during the South African War that a watchtower, seen in some photographs, was erected on one of the buildings.

As one stands in the cemetery nearby and looks across to Fort Amiel with the soft Berg wind playing in the grass, or wanders through the Newcastle town cemetery looking at the rows and rows of graves, one can picture the endless procession of soldiers who passed through Newcastle or who were stationed at Fort Amiel. Here may be seen the last resting places of those who made the supreme sacrifice, either in battle or through disease, such as Captain J. G. Westaway of the 13th Regiment, who died on 27th June, 1877, Second Lieutenant Walter S. S. Haworth, who died on 13th February, 1881, from wounds received at the Action of the Ingogo, and Privates T. and S. Dunleavie, two brothers in the 14th Hussars, who were stationed at Fort Amiel on two occasions during the South African War but who both died of enteric on 31st May, 1901. One can hear the sounds usually associated with infantry and mounted units in camp with the constant movement of men and horses, the neighing of the horses in the horse lines, the creaking of harness and the jingling of bridles and stirrup irons, and the bugle calls and the pipes being played throughout the day and evening, but more especially at the military funerals which, at times, must have become almost routine.


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