How I researched my first novel

My Rutherford Chronicles book series follows my grandfather Joe Rutherford, my father, myself and other characters, luminaries and simple working-class folk, through the 20th Century on four continents. The first book begins in the dockyards of Tyneside, North East England at the end of the 19th Century, then continues in South Africa during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War from October 1899 to May 1902, and ends in British Colonial India from 1902 to 1906.

Family legend had it that my British grandfather had fought in the South African War and had served in India with the British Army. That was enough to get me started on my path of research. His ‘Queen’s South Africa’ medal had four clasps with South Africa 1901, Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape Colony. So, if nothing else, I knew which regions he had visited in South Africa, where I was living. By that time, I knew that the British had fought two wars with the Dutch-speaking Boers of the South African republics, but little else. So, my research began with a long reading list of books on the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, in which my grandfather had taken part.

I started with two small books by Winston Churchill, for whom I’ve had a long obsession. The 25-year-old Churchill was a war correspondent for the first five months of the war. The first book of his I read was London to Ladysmith via Pretoria. This, and his second book, Ian Hamilton’s March, were collections of his dispatches back to his Newspaper The Morning Post while embedded with the British Army in Natal and on Lord Roberts’ march on Pretoria from Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State. The dispatches were fascinating and written with a typical Churchillian flourish. The young adventurer who dodged bullets in Cuba, took part in a cavalry charge against the Mahdists in Sudan and served with the British Army in India, where he was a 1st class polo player. As a soldier and correspondent in South Africa, he survived a Boer attack on the military train he was travelling in. But the Boers captured him on the 15th of November 1899. And they held him prisoner in Pretoria until he escaped on the night of the 12th of December. He then joined Field Marshal Lord Roberts, General Ian Hamilton, and over 40,000 British troops on the victorious march from Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State to the capital of the South African Republic, Pretoria.

That was an exciting start to my research, but it wasn’t enough. It only gave an exalted British account of events. So I read a book called Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War by the son of an ex-president of the Orange Free state, Deneys Reitz. Deneys and his brother joined the Boer campaign at the beginning of the war on the border of the Natal Colony and experienced the entire conflict with various commandos from Natal through the  Transvaal and ending with General Jan Smuts in the Northern Cape Colony at the end of the war.  That excellent book gave me a brilliant account of the three years of the glories and trials and suffering of the Boer struggle to survive the war and protect their republics. I followed that book with Three Years’ War by Boer General Christiaan Rudolf De Wet, the one the British never managed to subdue or capture. Then I read another account by Canadian soldier Willam Hart-McHarg called From Quebec to Pretoria with the Royal Canadian Regiment. Being part-British and part-Canadian, I found his book well-written and fascinating as well. Another book I read was The Great Boer War by Arthur Conan Doyle, volunteer doctor in the Langman Field Hospital at Bloemfontein between March and June 1900. By the time I was finished, I had read at least a dozen publications on the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. I had collected a sizeable library of references on the conflict, both as physical tomes for my bookshelves or ebooks. I can’t say I was an expert on the subject, but I had learned a lot. And what made it all so much better was that I had or could visit many of the historical sites mentioned in those accounts.

But, I still didn’t know much about my grandfather’s involvement apart from the clues pronounced by his medal clasps. So, I continued my research, hours and hours of it, until I finally discovered his “militia attestation papers”. That was a gold mine of information. To begin with, I learned where he was born, Heworth Lane, Felling, in what is now Gateshead, and where he lived at the time of enlisting, 11 Salem Street, Jarrow. He was employed with Hawthorn & Leslie of Hebburn, a shipbuilding and locomotive company. They recorded his age as 18 years and 11 months, his height as 5 feet 5 ½ inches and his weight as 105 lbs. They listed his chest measurements, complexion, eye and hair colour, and that he had scars on the back of his neck. I also learned that he was serving for the 1st Durham Voluntary Engineers at the time and that he was assigned to the 1st Durham Light Infantry (1/DLI) for the war in South Africa. He was pronounced fit for service on the 20th of November 1900 at Newcastle-on-Tyne. Finally, I gleaned from the form that he had 49 days of training and drill and was signed off for service in South Africa on the 18th of February 1901.

So, I knew all about the South African War. And I knew all about my grandfather at the time of his enlistment. All I needed was his movements. And once again, my research paid off. I found two books on the history of the Durham Light Infantry: The Durham Light Infantry, the United Red and White Rose, by William Lyonel Vane, which covered the records to 1914, and Faithful: The Story of the Durham Light Infantry, by S.G.P Ward, which was written later and covered the regiment into modern times.

The last source of information I came across was the record of every ship sailing to and from Great Britain throughout the war. Voyages of British troops posted daily in The London Times included the exact number of officers and men leaving, and often the names of the officers. Two hundred and fifty military sailings, in October and November 1899 alone, left a dozen British Empire ports across the globe. More left overseas ports such as Houston, Texas, New Orleans, Italy and Spain with supplies. There I learned that Joe’s company of three officers and 113 men of the 1/DLI left England for South Africa on S.S. Ebro from Albert Dock in Liverpool on the 15th of March 1901. Besides the 1/DLI company, three other companies comprising three officers and 113 men each were on board – the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers and a joint company of the Scottish Rifles and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Two officers and three men from the Royal Army Medical Corps were passengers too. The full complement was 20 officers and 680 men, plus horses, weapons, waggons and other equipment in the hold. After an exciting two-week journey from Liverpool, the ship arrived in Capetown on the 31st of March 1901.

Armed with all these facts, and guided through the war with the Durham Light Infantry from Colonel Vane’s detailed book, I could begin my journey with my grandfather through the Anglo-Boer War and into British India. What emerged from that journey, and my imagination was my first historical fiction novel: Empire Discovered.

Other references I used during my research for this book includes:

Roy Jenkins, Churchill, Pan Books, 2001; Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, Jonathan Ball, 1979; L.S. Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, 1909; D.W. Aitken, Guerrilla Warfare, October 1900-May 1902: Boer attacks on the Pretoria-Delagoa Bay Railway Line, The South African Military History Society Military History Journal Vol 11 No 6, December 2000; S A Watt, Harrismith – A Military Town During the Anglo-Boer War, and After: Part II, The South African Military History Society Military History Journal Vol 8 No 2, December 1989; H W Kinsey,  The Brandwater Basin and Golden Gate surrenders, 1900; The South African Military History Society Military History Journal Vol 11 No 3 and 4, October 1999; G.B. Beak, The aftermath of War, 1906; Byron Farwell, Armies of the Raj, Norton & Co, 1989; Nayar, Pramod K., Colonial Voices: The Discourses of Empire, John Wiley & Sons, 2012; Holmes Richard, Sahib: The British Soldier in India 1750-1914, HarperCollins, 2006; Cory, Charlotte, The Delhi Durbar 1903 Revisited, Sunday Times, the 29th of December 2002; Byron Farwell, Mr Kipling’s Army, All the Queen’s Men, Norton & Co, 1981.



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