John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.
The Royal Navy at first glance does not appear to feature prominently in the chronology of the South African War, or Boer War, of 1899 to 1902. Looking at a map, it becomes clear that the Royal Navy did play a key role in the transport of troops and supplies from across the British Empire in the war effort to subdue the Boers. While the major land campaigns and battles of the war were primarily the domain of the British Army, the Royal Navy did in fact play in important role in the early days of the war when resources were sparse and the British Empire found itself at an initial disadvantage to early Boer gains. This article will briefly examine how one event of the war, the Battle of Graspan , featured in one of these early campaigns has come to be remembered by the Royal Navy, and especially by the Royal Marines.
The outset of the war in Africa saw a series of well-known disasters and events for which Britain was ill prepared. Towns besieged by the Boers – Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley – grimly grabbed public attention and demanded a quick reversal of events. In November 1899, the Royal Marines would fight as part of an ad-hoc ‘naval brigade’, from the Cape Squadron and were attached to the relief of expedition of Lord Methuen to relieve Kimberley. Utilising improvised gun carriages, sailors and marines escorted naval guns from HMS Powerful and HMS Doris. On the road to Kimberley from Cape Town, costly battles were fought to eject the Boers from positions over-watching Methuen’s line of advance and critical supply lines.
Operational experience in the wars of the empire up to this time, including those elsewhere in Africa against brave but primitively armed opponents, had inculcated a mind-set and tactics unsuited to the realities of the new opposition now faced in the Boers, whose knowledge and employment of the terrain, fieldcraft, and proficiency with the most modern of high velocity rifles and smokeless cartridges, stymied the momentum of the British forces.
An early battle at a place called Belmont, established the predictable pattern of what Methuen’s forces would face. Supported by artillery fire from the naval brigade, British army regiments advanced in open order across open ground towards elevated Boer positions; exposed to accurate fire, casualties were high with some 200 killed or wounded, including several officers.
Two days later at Graspan, another battle followed the same pattern as at Belmont. Only this time, the naval brigade was committed in the role of an infantry regiment. Of a total 365 men from the Naval Brigade - 101 casualties, nearly a third of their force, fell in the field killed or wounded, including many of the senior officers, both navy and marine. Total British losses were 20 officers and men killed and 165 total wounded. Comparatively, Boer losses were estimated at over 200 dead and wounded.
The staggering losses confined the naval brigade to duties around employment of their guns only; they would not participate in further assaults. Replacements of sailors and marines would not arrive until December. In these two actions over three days, Methuen had already lost ten percent of his total original force before even reaching his ultimate objectives. He would fight more costly ones, such as at the Modder River, before reaching Kimberley.
The naval brigade received a message of thanks and condolence from the Queen. Press accounts which covered the movements and happenings of the war closely, reported the actions of the Naval Brigade at Graspan generally in a positive light, citing their bravery and valour. But, The Times sceptically noted that “we may well doubt whether it is desirable that the personnel of the Navy should be drained away in military operations hundreds of miles from the sea”.
Marine General and historian H.E. Blumberg would describe the battle at Graspan as, “one of the brightest episodes in the long history of the Corps.” But the reality was far more complex. The outcome of the battle, and the subsequent enquiries, would show that while the marines were still respected for their courage and military prowess, in other respects they were still not utilised to the best extent of their capabilities by the Admiralty or the War Office.
In Parliament, Graspan proved fodder for MPs eager to showcase the ineptitude of those managing the war. MP John Colomb, formerly an Royal Marines Artillery officer and a writer on naval strategy, attacked the Admiralty for the poor employment of the naval brigade at Graspan. Colomb decried the staggering losses of men, and in particular, the poor leadership of the naval officers “ignorant of land warfare” Such expeditions which saw the landing of naval brigades were not only now considered a routine occupation of the Royal Navy since the mid-nineteenth century, they were also important opportunities for naval officers, in a period with no fleet engagements and few ship to ship actions, to make themselves known. Both Jellicoe and Beatty, who would years later lead the Royal Navy at the Battle of Jutland, were both present and wounded in the relief expedition in Peking in 1900, better known as the Boxer Rebellion.
Graspan also served to reveal other tensions of naval forces operating with or as part of army forces. Traditionally, despatches post battle were published in the London Gazette. Methuen’s despatches on the events at Belmont and Graspan were published shortly afterwards, but the naval despatches submitted by the Cape Town station for the same events, were initially suppressed while the War Office and the Admiralty worked to avoid the publication of differing versions of the same event.
Further marginalisation of the events at Graspan included the denial of the inclusion of a specific battle clasp. Initial enthusiasm, as early as 1899, around the creation of a South Africa Medal and its corresponding clasps was reigned in by Lord Roberts who sought a stricter qualification process for the inclusion of battle clasps for British victories. As the war progressed, each battle event was reviewed and evaluated on its own merits for its impact and contribution. Despite Graspan being considered a victory in Methuen’s campaign, and its similarities in many respects to the battle of Belmont – Belmont was given a clasp, Graspan would not.
When the MP for Portsmouth in January 1902 enquired in Parliament again if whether in view of the conduct of the Naval Brigade, a clasp inscribed for Graspan might be issued. The appeal was negative by the Secretary for War. The South African Medal decision book at the National Archives reveals that the King had in fact, despite the repeated proposal of the Admiralty, already denied the clasp in keeping with Lord Robert’s original decision. Such actions only served in the eyes of the marines, and as Colomb had indicated following Graspan, to further marginalise the role and employment of the marines within the navy. At the start of the new century, the Corps faced further obstacles but also changes that would redefine their organisational character.
Legacy of the Battle of Graspan
Today, in current popular imagination, it is the Royal Marines clad in their iconic green berets, which evokes the image of this elite fighting force and modern experts in amphibious operations. This transformation in the mid-twentieth century resulted in the reorganisation and a radical shift in their operational role, as well as in their organisational culture to what we know them as today. So significant was the rate of changes in the Royal Marines following the First World War that, as Julian Thompson observed in his own work on Corps history, by the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Corps would have been “almost unrecognizable” to anyone who had served in it during the first quarter.
The battle of Graspan itself remains an obscure battle in the chronology of the South African, but one which remains significant to the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. In 1903, the Royal Marines erected a statue on the Mall in St James’s Park, now adjacent to Admiralty Arch. An annual parade takes place each year in May, attended by the Commandant General, detachments of marines, and members of the Royal Marines Association and guests. Rededicated in 2000 to the memory all Royal Marines, the monument has a renewed significance to the Royal Marines today, both as a representation of the continued service of the Corps to the nation, and also in memory of those who have served before - especially those fallen in war. For the Royal Navy, the origins of the Royal Navy field gun competition, still popular as a means for competitive sport and as a method to build cohesion and team spirit, are rooted in the South African War from the naval guns carried across South Africa used to relief the besieged cities.
Notes on sources
1) The Battle of Graspan is also known in some reports and despatches as the Battle of Enslin, named for the nearby railway station.
2) “The Naval Brigade Losses”, The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post (Bristol, England), Monday, November 27, 1899; Issue 16083.
3) Royal Marines Museum Archives, Quoted from H.E. Blumberg, History of the Royal Marines, 1837-1914. These unpublished manuscripts were later published by the Royal Marines Historical Society as Special Publications, H.E. Blumberg, Royal Marine Records Part III: 1837-1914, Royal Marines Historical Society (Southsea: Royal Marines Historical Society, 1982) 28.
4) “The Military Situation”, The Times (London, England), Monday, Nov 27, 1899; pg. 12; Issue 35997.
5) Blumberg, History of the Royal Marines, 111.
6) HC Deb 01 March 1900 vol 79 cc1466.
7) The original by Methuen mentioning Graspan were in the London Gazette Friday January 26, 1900, no.27157, 497. Later in March, a second despatch included those by the Admiralty in London Gazette, Friday March 30, 1900, no. 27178, 2125.
8) HC Debate, 28 January 1902, vol. 101 cc1092-3.
9) TNA, WO 162/96 South Africa Medal Decision Book.
10) Julian Thompson, The Royal Marines: From Sea Soldiers to a Special Force, (London: Pan Books, 2001), 3.
11) Ibid, 2-3.