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RESEARCHING FORT AMIEL
There is and always has been a paucity of information on long overlooked Fort Amiel, and researching the fort’s history has not been an easy task. Even the restoration of the installation in 1986 was beset with problems, especially in regard to the positioning of the walls, and even the very nature of the buildings that had not survived.
In reflection, this lack of information has several reasons, the first being that most visitors to and through Newcastle between the years 1876 to 1902, did not take a trip up to the fort which was located a distance outside of the town and away from the road. In addition, Newcastle was in every sense of the word a ‘frontier village’ with little import for several decades, bar for military reasons and latterly for the coal that lies in seams about and under the town. Further to this – for the few who did put pen-to-paper – they most times referred to any military matter in relation to Newcastle and not to Fort Amiel – even though the military encampments and most military maneuverings were located at and around the fort. Another reason is that momentous events such as the Battles of Laingsnek, Ingogo and Majuba drew the attention of writers and reporters further north from the fort. One can locate numerous images of Majuba Mountain, but precious few of the neighbouring town and of Fort Amiel from where the soldiers marched out to these battles. I am certain that had Newcastle been besieged by the Boers as were the towns of Ladysmith and Kimberley; or had the Fort been beset by the Zulu impi as had happened at the mission station Rorkes Drift, we would have a plethora of information and imagery.
I do not believe that this dearth of information diminishes the importance of the fort, for it is quite evident from the information that we do have, that Fort Amiel was a vital and strategic point during the Anglo-Zulu War as well as during both Anglo-Boer Wars.
Research requires us to work that much harder – and whereas other topics require simple harvesting, that of Fort Amiel has required concentrated and long term gleaning.
I trust this posting will add to our knowledge of Fort Amiel and provide some insight into the lives of the men and women who were stationed here. I dedicate this history to all the soldiers who served loyally at the fort. Also to all those who suffered the wounds of war, and to those young men who paid the ultimate price. May their spirits rest in peace.
Graham Leslie McCallum
FORT AMIEL and the STAFFORDSHIRE VOLUNTEERS
The frontier town of Newcastle gained importance to the British Military in the 1870’s as the British Government took preparatory measures to complete the annexation of the Transvaal. To accomplish this, British troops were stationed at several towns and villages across the Transvaal, setting up garrisons at towns like Standerton and Potchefstroom. Lord Carnarvon at the Colonial Office in London believed in a more vigorous foreign policy, and that the Transvaal be brought completely under the British umbrella of control. He therefore encouraged greater military preparedness, with the upgrading of military installations. One of the first indications of this new strategy was the building of Fort Amiel and Fort Durnford in 1976 at Natal.
In the Transvaal – British troops were spread rather thinly and with the Boers becoming increasingly hostile and rebellious to British authorities, it became necessary to hold additional troops in reserve within the Colony of Natal should they be needed to bolster the garrisons already in the Transvaal.
This strategy is borne out by an early traveler who traversed Newcastle in early 1876, namely Anthony Trollope, who wrote the following in his book ‘South Africa’… “Newcastle is the frontier town of the Natal Colony, and is nearly half-way between Pietermarizburg and Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal. It is now being made a military station, – with the double purpose of overawing the Dutch Boers who have been annexed, and the Zulus who have not.”
It is for this reason that the order was given that the 80th Regiment, known as the Staffordshire Volunteers, were to be transported to Natal. They arrived at Port Natal, Durban, early in 1876, in the vessel ‘Orontes’ from their previous posting in Hong Kong.
Her Majesty’s Transport ‘Orontes’ photographed at Cape Town in the 1870’s.
The regiment of 300 men of varying ranks commenced a march in May 1876 from Durban (by foot, for the railway line was yet to be built) up the escarpment, across the midlands and over the Biggarsberg Range, and arriving at frontier town Newcastle in June that winter. This road (more a track) is described in accounts of the time as rutted, muddy, and dangerous to animal and vehicle. The road forks beyond Newcastle, with one branch leading across Botha’s Pass to the Orange Free State and on to Bloemfontein and Kimberley in Griqualand West, where diamonds had recently been discovered in 1871. The other branch led up the Majuba Pass, over Lang’s Nek (also traditionally but erroneously spelled Laing’s Nek) to Charlestown, and then over the border to the small town of Volksrust in the Transvaal, and on to the capital, Pretoria.
A soldier from the 80th Regiment of Foot.
Anthony Trollope, an early visitor to Newcastle wrote an account in his book ‘South Africa’ of a detachment of the 80th who he encountered encamped along the road to Newcastle… “Immediately opposite to this hovel there was on that night a detachment of the 80th going up to join its regiment at Newcastle. The soldiers were in tents, ten men in a tent, and when I left them in the evening seemed to be happy enough. It poured during the whole night and on the next morning the poor wretches were very miserable. The rain had got into their tents and they were wet through in their shirts. I saw some of them afterwards as they got into Newcastle, and more miserable creatures I never beheld. They had three days of unceasing rain, and – as they said, no food for two days.”
Any traveler today, taking the old road to Newcastle that traverses numerous hills, deep valleys and rocky mountains; crossing numerous streams and rivers – cannot fail to appreciate what the 80th endured as they lugged all their kit and equipment the 400 kilometres inland.
Trollope continues… “When they reached Newcastle there was a river between them and their camping ground. In fine weather the ford is nearly dry; but now the water had risen up to a man’s middle and the poor fellows went through with their great coats on, too far gone in their misery to care for further troubles.”
Military button belonging to the 80th Regiment, Staffordshire Volunteers, found at Fort Amiel.
The 80th Regiment soldiers (Staffordshire Volunteers) who built Fort Amiel were under the command of career soldier Major Charles Frederick Amiel. The fort they built in 1876-1877 was named after the Major. 90 years later, the adjacent suburb (Amiel Park) was also named after the Major.
From Colonel-Commandant Arthur Thurlow Cuningham’s book ‘My Command in South Africa’ we know that the Colonel who commanded the 60th had arrived in Newcastle towards the end of May (a month before Major Amiel arrived with the 80th). It was he who chose the siting for a fort and encampment, for he writes… “The British troops under my command did not immediately accompany me, but followed by a somewhat different route. In case of an outbreak I established a military post at Newcastle, a commanding position, and the troops, having reached that point, proceeded to the Transvaal.”
Colonel-Commandant Arthur Thurlow Cuningham
Map of Newcastle showing the position of Fort Amiel and the Surrounding District. Cuningham positioned his camp and subsequent fort on Newcastle Townlands.
Traveler Anthony Trollope was invited by the Major and his officers to have tiffin and dinner at the encampment atop the bluff. Gratefully he relates… “Everything was excellent; but that on which the Mess prided itself most was the possession of Bass’s Bitter Beer.” As the old song of the time goes… “Of all the complaints from A to Zed – the fact is very clear – There’s no disease but what’s been cured by Bass’s Bitter Beer.” We can only hope that when the 80th (referred to before by Trollope) reached the camp, they were rewarded with some of this draught.
It is evident today from the large piles of broken glass on the edge of the hill that the men indulged frequently, not only of Bass’s but also of Schiedam’s Dutch Gin too.
Gin bottles in the Talana Museum (Consol Glass Collection) Dundee, Natal.
Trollope writes the following (so reminiscent of my own two years in the South African Defense Force and we being encouraged to put pen to paper) … “We stayed at Newcastle over a Sunday and went up to service in the camp. The army had its Chaplain, and 150 men collected themselves under a marquee to say their prayers and hear a short sermon in which they were told to remember their friends at home, and to write faithfully to their mothers.”
In concluding his visit, Trollope writes graciously… “We were only three nights at Newcastle, but when we went away we seemed to be leaving old friends under the tents up on the hill.”
Brevet Lieutenant Colonel occupied himself with more than simply fort building. The life’s of an officer in the British Army had its advantages, for besides fine dining mentioned above, we know that Amiel requested of the Government in 1877 that he and an underling be granted permission to shoot 6 hartebeest.
When (newly appointed) Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Amiel’s commanding officer Colonel Twemlow died in King Williamstown, Amiel was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel on the 9th of November 1877 and took over the command of the Regiment in Pietermaritzburg. His place at Fort Amiel was taken by Major H. Rowland who unfortunately died shortly thereafter on the 17th of November 1877. In turn, Major Charles Tucker took command of the Fort.
An excerpt documenting the promulgation concerning Lieutenant-Colonel George Hamilton Twemlow, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Frederick Amiel and Major C. Tucker in the London Gazette, 22 January 1878.
Badge of the 80th Regiment, Staffordshire Volunteers.
An early photograph (1870’s) of a rustic and ramshackle Newcastle, looking North. Fort Amiel can be seen in the distance atop the bluff. In this image the soldier’s Barracks are visible on the far left of the hill, the Guard Room and Canteen are to be seen atop the middle area of the hill and two large Stores can be noted on the hill to the right. The treeless state of the surrounds can be seen in this image, something noted by early uncomplimentary visitors. In the very far distance of this image, one can see a range of hills where a fort was built atop Signal Hill. The approach to the fort is visible on the right of the image, leading up from the drift on the right of the photograph. In this image the road to the North that leads to Majuba Mountain, Charlestown and the town of Volksrust across the South African Republic border (Transvaal) can be seen too.
An informative 1880 illustration of the town of Newcastle drawn from the lower heights of Fort Amiel during the 1st Anglo-Boer War. Note the many pack wagons and the treeless course of the Ncandu River in the middleground. Hilldrop is visible in the background as it is in this sketch I made at a teenager in the 1980’s.
In Florence Dixie’s 1881 book ‘In the Land of Misfortune’ she writes the following…”The squadron had trotted on ‘towards Fort Amiel, and, having crossed a small spruit, an offshoot of the Incandu River, had formed up to await the wagons and afford any assistance that might be required. This, ere long, was much called for at a short but very ‘perpendicular hill, which rose abruptly from the spruit in question to the level of the Fort. In spite of gallant efforts on the part of the oxen, several wagons stuck fast, and it required many and many united hauls on the part of the men before they could be extricated. All this took up a good deal of time, and it was nearly nine o’clock before the last waggon was seen safely to the summit…” The spruit to which Dixie refers is the Inguduma stream.
(image above and two images below) Photograph of the footbridge across the Ncandu River, Newcastle, near the fork with the Incandu River and Inguduma Spruit.
Florence Dixie writes of the Incandu Drift…”On arriving at the Incandu, however, another halt had to be called, and a delay even more lengthened and tedious undergone in superintending its passage, for the ford was an awkward one, lying deeply in a hollow, and the wagons descending with a rush into the rapid waters, some difficulty was found in preventing the poor beasts yoked to them from coming to a dead stop for the purpose of slaking their thirst. In this way several spans got hopelessly entangled, and much delay was occasioned in their unraveling ; added to which the way leading out of the spruit rose in an abrupt incline, which, speedily becoming slippery from the drippings of several wagons that had already passed, rendered it almost impossible for the animals to retain their footing. Down they kept falling one by one, the confusion so occasioned being frightful. Altogether, what with the shouts of the soldiers and the fiendish yells of the drivers and conductors, the scene became one somewhat in accord with the descriptions of the infernal regions”.
Cavalry horses belonging to the Australian Commonwealth Horse crossing the Incandu River Drifts below Fort Amiel in 1902.
A Trekwagon and oxen crossing the Incandu River. Note the Pontoon to the right of the image.
Washing Clothes, Incandu River. Note the military tents in the background.
Capsizing of the pontoon on the Incandu River, Newcastle, sketch by Capt. Ernest Hovell Thurlow, 60th or 80 th Rifles.
British troops building a cask bridge over the Incandu River.
Egerton K. Laird, of whom I have previously written, says the following about the Incandu River, drift and fort… “Fort Amiel, where the troops are, is on the opposite side of the river, and lies in a healthy situation on a high cliff. The river is now fordable, but in summer has to be crossed on pontoons or by boat, and is dangerous at times.”
A photograph taken circa 1900, looking south showing the bridge over the Incandu River, with Newcastle in the background. The modern bridge lies just to the east of this crossing point. The sandstone piers to this bridge still exist supporting a modern day footbridge.
(Above and Below) Incandu River and Railway Bridge, April 1902.This bridge as well as the Road Bridge were blown-up by the retreating Boers in 1900, and had to be rebuilt.
British soldiers crossing the Ingagane River south of Newcastle via Aerial cable while the their horses swim across the drift.
The Railway Bridge across the Ingagane River to the immediate south of Newcastle with bathing British troops. This bridge was destroyed by the Boers as they retreated through Newcastle.
A rough pen and ink sketch I executed of the modern bridge over the Ingeduma Spruit, where the drift was located and just upstream from the fork with the Incandu River where another drift was located that allowed access to Newcastle.
BUILDING THE FORT
The 80th immediately began the task of choosing a suitable location for their encampment and a location for a defensive fort. As has been stated before, the site had already been chosen by Colonel-Commandant Arthur Thurlow Cuningham as a camp becasue of its ‘commanding position. Newcastle as stated was built upon a plain, and the only two areas of high ground were Hilldrop, the locality of the farm Roy Point/ Mooifontein of Sir Rider Haggard, that lay several miles away to the South of the town; and the promontory to the North of the town on the further side of the Incandu River. This bluff, less than a kilometre from the fledgling town, was surrounded on three sides by steep hillsides making approach difficult, with the tributary stream to the Incandu, the Inguduma flowing at the base of the hillside on two sides, to the west and south.
Map of Fort Amiel. 2014.
Photograph showing the varied locations of the buildings at Fort Amiel.
Map of the Fort Amiel military installations overlaid with the present situation so as to indicate the positions of buildings now no longer extent.
Map of Fort Amiel showing the positions of the buildings and structures, as well as indicating the topography.
(above) A bird’s eye view drawing of Fort Amiel based on a scaled model (below), prior to 1882 when the Barracks/Hospital were demolished and the Stores were sold-off.
Another aerial-view of Fort Amiel.
A graphic image of the Barracks/Hospital at Fort Amiel based on a long-distance photograph of the installation.
A wide-angled and closer view taken from the image below of Fort Amiel. (Image – courtesy of the Talana Museum, Dundee).
A closer-view of the image above showing from left to right the Guard House, Commissariat Office, Canteen, Cook Houses and four Officer’s Barracks. (Image – courtesy of the Talana Museum, Dundee).
A sketch from the western boundary of Fort Amiel showing the commanding view of the land lying to the west of fort towards the Drakensberg and the Orange Free State that lies above the escarpment.
25 years later – in 1901, a Captain Campbell of the 6th West Australian Contingent who was stationed at the fort writes of the Inguduma… “A pretty little spruit runs right round the base of the hill, which affords an excellent bathing place; and a copious supply of fresh water is furnished by a spring close at hand.”
In addition, the larger Incandu River was suitably positioned within close proximity to the south, and the Incandu Drift into and out of Newcastle within artillery range. And furthermore, from the bluff, the road to the Orange Free State and Transvaal were within view. The position chosen could only be approached from the north across a narrow neck of land. Thus it was that the 80th began the arduous task of clearing the hillside of rocks, leveling the land, digging ditches, raising ramparts and gathering rocks from the locale to build dry-stone walls.
(above and below) A map of Fort Amiel and the Newcastle Township, based on the Original Plan of the Fort from 1883.
The British War Department bought the land where the Fort is positioned from the Newcastle Council.
Presently, one may only speculate how long the fort took to complete, and one may surmise that it had been completed (or hastened to a completion) before the commencement of the Anglo Zulu War in January 1879, a time span of two and a half years. We know that several buildings in Newcastle were fortified in 1879 as a fear of a Zulu attack grew more possible.
Another military installation at Newcastle is the Old Magazine (Armoury) thought to have been built in the 1860’s by the local contingent, the Natal Mounted Rifles.
The Armoury, Old Magazine. Of interest – Winston Churchill after his capture by the Boers (when a War Correspondent during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War) spent a night imprisoned here while been taken to Pretoria.
The fort consisted of the following works…
A Ditch, a Rampart and a Stone Wall – constructed on the highest area of the knoll and on the leading edge of the hill, containing the Offices, Canteen, Cookhouse and Guard House. By the early 1970’s this ditch and rampart had been filled in. The wall was built of local uncut stone in the form of loose rocks and boulders, with an outer layer of larger stones and an inner core of smaller stones, in a technique common in the farmlands of the British Isles. Only sections of the wall had survived into the 1970’s, mainly on the Eastern and Southern flanks of the fort, most of it diminished in height. Much of the lower courses survived, consisting of large, finely laid stones that would have required many men and perhaps oxen to move. The Canteen was constructed on a stone platform that doubled as a protective wall.
Unlike the rest of the stone walls, much of the lower course on the south western corner was constructed of white sandstone, mostly damaged by the restoration of the 1980’s., although some of the lower course survives.
The Canteen – built on the precipitous south eastern corner of the fort, on a large stone platform. One can view this platform from the outside of the fort. The reason for locating the Canteen on this spot is unusual and might come down to the the whim of an officer wanting a view. At the time of the commencement of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, the pediments of this building had been destroyed and the remainder was flat-roofed in corrugated iron. By the 20th Century this building had been completely destroyed, although its 2 metre high foundation, of well laid stone were extent. In the 1970’s the stonewalled courtyard to the Canteen was partially extent. In 1899 this area was partially roofed over with corrugated iron. In the 1970’s this walled-in corner appeared to have been used as horse stables for we found numerous horse shoes in the ground. As children we knew it as the ‘Stables’. The Canteen was rebuilt in the 1980’s of red brick. A photograph from the time of the Zulu War does not reveal the Canteen and this indicates that it was one of the latter buildings to be constructed. From the original plans we can deduce the following about the original building – Foundations of stone in the fashion of a platform. Floors of brick or stone. Walls of 14 inches (350 mm) built of sun-dried bricks with burnt brick exterior courses, assembled with ‘daga’ (ant-hill mud) and plastered with the same and loop holed. Inner walls were whitewashed. Bricked Arches were built above all doors as supporting lintels but finished flat. Windows were of the casement sashe kind and constructed of 1 1/2 inch deal, bevelled bar, with 4″ by 3″ mullion that was rebated and bevelled, opening outwards with bolts and holdfasts, glazed in 6 panes and secured with 5/8″ iron bars. The Door was 2 inches thick and framed in diagonal match-boarding in two thicknesses and covered in sheet iron, inside and out. Doors were secured with 14″ bolts, 10″ Stock lock, padlock and hinges. In the two brick pediments vents were inserted for cross ventilation. The roof was of collar and tie beam and covered in corrugated iron without a ceiling. Canteen also had two chimneys and fireplaces and a lightning conductor.
A small watercolour painting I did of the Canteen after it was reconstructed in the 1980’s. Hilldrop can be seen in the far distance of this image.
The Canteen photographed in 1899. Tow of the windows have been bricked in.
Fort Amiel photographed in the 1960’s showing the remnants of the Canteen. By the 1970’s this structure was completely destroyed.
Detail of the Arched Lintels to Window and Door Openings.
An ink and pen sketch of the Canteen prior to the reconstructing of the stone walls.
Offices (Commissariat Offices) – extent in the 1970’s – and consisting of 4 offices, each with a central fireplace, iron-barred windows, wooden floors and corrugated iron roof. This building was made of sun-dried and burnt brick, with walls 14 inches thick. Interconnecting doors were driven through walls when it became a farmstead. During the 1950’s a lavatory and a kitchen had been built onto the rear of the house and the verandahs semi-enclosed. These were demolished when the fort was restored to its original dimensions, however the rest of the building was of such a poor condition that the whole building was demolished and rebuilt. In 1902, during the latter months of the Anglo-Boer War, this building was used as a prison for transgressing soldiers.
From the original plans the following can be deduced about the original construction – Foundations of stone, with wooden under-ventilated floors. 14 inch walls were built as already stated of sun-dried brick with outer courses of burnt brick, assembled with ant-hill ‘daga’. Walls were loop holed, plastered and whitewashed on the interior. Cement skirting walkway was constructed around building. Lintels were built of arched brick and finished flat and sills of brick set on edge and cemented. Windows were of the casement sashe kind and constructed of 1 ½ inches deal, bevelled bar, hung in 2 widths with 2pr butts, 2 bolts and holdfasts, opening inwards and glazed in 5 panes and secured with 5/8″ iron bars. The doors were 1 ½ inch framed, rebated and beaded, with padlock, Norfolk Latch, and butts. The roof was constructed with collar and tie beam, covered in corrugated iron and with match-boarding ceilings. Air vents were set in the two pediments and a lightning conductor was set atop the roof.
Commissariat Office, Fort Amiel, Newcastle. There is an aspect to these two buildings reminiscent of the Blockhouses of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.
A poor but valuable photograph of cavalrymen from the Australian Commonwealth Horse standing in front of the wall that lies to the east of the Commissariat Offices. Lieutenant labeled the image as the ‘blockhouse’ and ‘mess’.
The Commissariat Office photographed in the 1950’s when Fort Amiel was a farmstead. Note the two caravans to accommodate the large family who lived here.
The Offices as a homestead 1930’s to 1960’s. Note how the corrugated iron roof is weighted down with rocks because of the buffeting winds at Fort Amiel.
A Guard House – extent in 1970’s and consisting of two rooms with two doors and a corrugated roof. Walls and Floors were made of sun-dried and burnt brick, and windows that faced towards the inside of the fort. The observation conning tower atop this building was no longer in existence in the 1970’s and was later reconstructed. It was constructed in 1900 when the British Military refortified the position following the expulsion of the Boer forces.
A photograph of the Guard House at Fort Amiel taken some time after the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. Note the Conning Tower atop the building from where the guards could keep a lookout of the surrounding countryside. This must have been a miserable post on a windy or rainy day, not to mention been choked by smoke from the chimney. A compensation then and now is that the view is breathtaking. The plans for the fort indicate that the stone wall was to be built to abut the left and right sides of the Guard House (as can be observed today in the reconstructed wall) however in this image, the wall is positioned in front of the western side of the Guard House. When this image was taken, the poor condition of the stone wall, already tumbled down in sections can be observed. The gap visible in the wall is the exit point to the soldier’s barracks behind where the photographer stood. Through the gap in the wall a glimpse of the Commissariat Offices can be seen. There also appears to be a chimneyed structure with doorway adjacent the Offices, perhaps a Cook House. Note the gun slits in the western wall of the Guard House, these were bricked in when the fort became a farmstead. Photo’ Newcastle Advertiser.
The Guard House consisted of two rooms, a Guard’s Room and a Prisoner’s Room. No doubt when there were no prisoners in detention, this room doubled as a guard room.
From the original plans of the fort we know the following about its construction – Foundations were built of stone and the floor of burnt brick. The walls (17 inches thick, were built of burnt brick on the outside and sun-dried brick on the inside courses, assembled with ant-hill ‘daga’ and flat pointed, plastered and whitewashed inside and pierced with loop holes. The roof was constructed of wooden collar and tie beams and covered in corrugated iron.All window and door openings have arched burnt brick lintels finished flat. Doors were made of 2 inch frames with diagonal match-boarding in 2 thicknesses, and then covered with sheet iron inside and out, secured with 14 inch bolts, 10” stock lock, padlock and hinges, in both Guard and Prisoner’s Rooms. Windows of 1 ½ inch deal, beveled bar, of casement sashe-kind, with mullion of 4”x3” rebated and beaded, hung in 2 widths with 2 pr. 3 ½ butts, opening inwards, and secured with bolts and holdfasts. Glazed in 4 panes and secured with 5/8″ iron bars. The Guard house was protected with a lightning conductor.
Photograph of Boers posing in front of the Guard House, 1899. A group of the Hollander Corps was stationed here to garrison it and these could well be this contingent. Most of the Hollander Corps perished at the Battle of Elandslaagte. At this time span, the fort was a farmstead – note. the loop holes are bricked in.
A photograph at the Fort Amiel Museum of the Guard House, post 1900, showing a man atop the conning tower which was constructed during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War,and below the reconstructed conning tower built in the 1980’s.
(Below) – A photograph of the Guard House taken in the 1980’s before the structure was restored. At this stage it had already been badly vandalised. Remnants of the stable alongside the building is still visible.
(above and below) the modern exhibits in the Guard House.
The original Guard House Key.
Barracks (16 Huts) – (12) huts for soldiers and (4) huts for officers were constructed of sun-dried brick walls, with stone floors and with thatched roofing. Those of the soldiers 40 ft by 20 ft and housing 14 men in each hut. Those of the Officers huts, 23 ft by 14 ft and with wooden floors. The huts on the western side of the fort were numbered 1 to 13. Possibly more were built after this initial planned number. These had been built on the Western side of the fort, outside the walls but protected on three sides by the steep hillsides. The Officer’s Huts were built on the eastern side of the fort adjacent to the stores. None of these huts survived to the 20th Century. Although records state there were 10 huts, the original plan shows 12. The original stone foundations are extent and are composed of shoe-polished stones. These foundations can be seen on a close examination of the Google Satellite image of the area. During the 1st Anglo-Boer War, these huts changed function to that of a hospital for the wounded and diseased. Dr. D. Blair Brown, a Surgeon at the Fort during the Anglo-Zulu War and 1st Anglo-Boer War wrote a good description of these structures in his book ‘Surgical Experiences in the Zulu and Transvaal Wars’, 1879 to 1881′ … “In the Boer War, the hospital at Newcastle to which I was appointed consisted of a series of thirteen square huts, the walls of which were formed of sunburnt bricks plastered with the gummy earth procured from ant-hills, so plentiful in the country. The roofs were thatch. The huts were arranged regularly in four lines, three in each, with the odd one some little distance in the rear. These buildings had been used for a long time as the permanent barracks of the garrison.” Adjacent to hut No. 10 (the original Hospital) were two smaller huts, the one marked as a Store, the other possibly a Cook House. On the southern flanks of the hillside near these barracks are localities where large deposits of broken glass can be found today. There is also a large boulder on the edge of the hillside that has the lines of a game inscribed onto it by some long-ago soldier.
Photograph showing the area on the bluff where the soldier’s huts were located. Also noticeable in this image are several military bell-tents.
A photographic view from Newcastle to Fort Amiel. The Barracks can be seen in this image.
A view from the township of Newcastle looking towards Fort Amiel. A close-examination of this image reveals the soldiers huts on the left side of the bluff.
Map of the Soldier’s Barracks.
Hospital (General Hospital and latter a Surgery) – This sundried brick and mud plastered building had a thatched roof and stood on the far western side, some distance away from the barracks and overlooking the Drakensberg. During the Zulu War this building was used alone as a hospital. This structure was numbered No. 10. Doctor. D. Blair Brown, a Surgeon at the Fort during the Anglo-Zulu War and 1st Anglo-Boer War wrote the following referring to the structures used previously as the barracks… “These buildings had been used for a long time as the permanent barracks of the garrison, the separate one in the rear as the hospital. This hospital hut was called “No. 10″ each of the huts having a number.” From Dr. Brown’s record we know that the hospital had been expanded during the Transvaal War (1st Anglo-Boer War) and now encompassed all 10 previous barracks huts, plus an additional structure which we know from present foundations was built alongside the original hospital. Dr. Brown continues in his book… “The station, Newcastle, in the Zulu War had a notoriety for the numerous cases of enteric fever occurring at it, all the cases of which were treated in N0. 10 hut.” From what we know of enteric fever (typhoid fever) – a life threatening disease contracted from the infectious agent Salmonella enterica enterica, serovar Typhi and contracted from coming into contact with the faeces of an infected person , the latrines and hygiene at the fort must have been inadequate. Dr. Brown continues… “On the break-out of the revolt in the Transvaal the whole of these buildings were placed in charge of the Medical Department, to form their base hospital, and which, as I have said, all the wounded passed through on their way to Natal and England, as well as the majority of the sick at the station who required treatment.” Brown states the following about the structure referred to previously as hut N0. 10. … “No. 10 hut played an important part in the history of this hospital, being the one to which the most serious cases were removed. The patients in it fell to me as part of my duty. Naturally I had misgivings about it as as regards the surgical success of treatment in such a building which had not been whitewashed since its use as the “general” hospital of the garrison.” Brown would have preferred to have treated the soldiers in tents, for he writes… ” Personally I would prefer treating cases of severe gunshot injuries in a well-pitched marquee than in a hut with foul walls and uncertain ventilation.” He had discovered that the cases treated in bell-tents during the Zulu War responded better to treatment. No dubt because of a reduction in surfaces infected with bacterial and improved ventilation. The doctor continues his narrative, bringing the suffering and shame of war to mind… “The groans and agonies heard and witnessed in it were enough to give one an idea of what must have taken place on a larger scale in recent European wars, and made one feel how much we have, in every detail, to learn before we can plume ourselves as too many are apt to do at present.”
From the original plan for Fort Amiel we can deduce the following about the Hospital – Stone foundations and stone floors. Walls 14 inches thick and made of sun-dried bricks assembled with ant-hill ‘daga’, plastered on the inside and whitewashed. Roof of thatch.
The drawing below is of a Private in the 58th Regiment who was wounded at Laing’s Nek. Dr. Brown amputated his shoulder and arm, including half of patients scapula and clavicle.
4 Cookhouses – One Cookhouse survived at the entrance to the fort on the Northern side, now restored. An additional two were located off the eastern side of the fort and adjacent to the former. A fourth Cook House was located alongside the soldiers Barracks to the west of the fort and adjacent to the Hospital. In 1880, Florence Dixie visited the fort and dined in the Mess with Sir Evelyn Wood. She wrote in her book ‘In The Land Of Misfortune’… “We dined that night at Fort Amiel with Sir Evelyn Wood and his staff, and spent a very merry evening”. Is the Mess she refers to the Canteen?
In the original plans, the details of the Cook House is mentioned – Stone Foundations and Floor of burnt brick. Walls of burnt brick (14 inches) with inner course of sun-dried bricks, assembled with ant-hill ‘daga’, with inner walls plastered and whitewashed and walls pierced with loopholes. Roof of the collar and tie beam style with corrugated iron covering. Window and door lintels constructed of brick arches and finished flat. Windows of 1 ½ inch deal, bevelled bar, casement sashes, with mullion 4”x3” rebated and beaded, hung in 2 widths with 2 pr. 3 ½ butts, opening inwards, and secured with bolts and holdfasts. Glazed in 5 panes.
(above and below) the Cook House that is located within the boundary of the fort.
An interior view of the Cook House showing the two hearths.
11 Store Huts, RE Store, Pack Store, Magazine and Shell Store – none in existence in the 20th Century. Most of these were built with corrugated iron walls and roofs and were located on the apposing hill on the Eastern flank of the fort and where Amiel Road lies today. The Magazine and Shell Store have been reconstructed.
Latrines – One set of Latrines was located adjacent to the Officer’s Barracks on the northeastern side of the fort, however the location of the soldiers is unknown, but were most likely located where the french-drain lies today (west side of fort) .
Water Wells – located near the Commissariat Offices and extent in the 1970’s but covered over with a stone slab. This was destroyed by the fort’s restorers who had the inner area to the fort ploughed. A well was situated to the north east of the fort, just beyond the Stores. One visitor mentions that water was to be had at a nearby spring. A possible location for this is a natural spring that flows about 250 metres to the north west of the fort and in line with the graveyard. Also, to the east of the fort a natural spring is located that runs down the hill to the Inguduma Spruit. Water could also be obtained from the Inguduma Spruit that half encircles the bluff on which the fort is built.
FORT AMIEL AS A MILITARY INSTALLATION
When the Newcastle area was liberated from Boer control we know that Fort Amiel was attached from its private owners.
The military needs of the time necessitated a very large encampment, adjacent to the walled fort. From images of the time we know that this camp was of considerable size, running north and spreading out over the grassed area that led up to the base of Signal Hill. This area today are the neighbourhoods of Amiel Park and Hutten Heights. This accounts for the large number of artifacts that residents locate to this day in their gardens across this vast area.
Private J. N. Davies wrote a descriptive account of the encampment to the Clarence and Richmond Examiner in March 1902 towards the end of the war… “We were marched to Fort Amiel. Intending settlers camp about one and a half miles from Newcastle, near Kitchener’s Kop, under the command of Captain Everett, who became Commanding Officer of the detail camp, having some 2000 or 3000 men under his charge, consisting of Australians and Canadians. Opposite the detail camp, and just at the foot of Kitchener’s Kop, were some thousands of bell-tents, occupied by Colonials who had just come back off trek waiting their turn to leave for home. They consisted of mixed battalions from Australia and New Zealand. The Scots Greys formed a camp just near them two days after we arrived. There were various other regiments, scattered around, which was a sight to see, the camp covering two or three miles of country. It is wonderful with what rapidity they can move these small towns. You see a large camp one day, the next nothing but the veldt, and but for the exception of a few jam tins, old boots, etc., no one would think that on the day previous it contained some hundreds of troops. Just behind the camp one would descend into a valley clothed for miles with long thatch grass, bending and rippling like a corn field. The Boers used to fire this grass so as to distinguish the khaki better against the black ground. Ant-heaps as large as an armchair were scattered like almonds on a cake over the plain. The troops often used these ant-heaps for protection from rifle fire ofthe enemy. Kaffir kraals were to be seen not far from the camp. They are conical in shape, and consist of clay and cow-dung; also thatch grass is used in their construction.”
It is evident from the written records of the time that some distinction developed between the fort and the encampment. Many writer’s merely state they visited the ‘encampment’ or the ‘Newcastle Camp’ and do not state necessarily ‘Fort Amiel’. The most plausible reason is that they simply did not know the official name of the fort. However, from the descriptions of the location of the camp as been atop a hill – we know that their references are to Fort Amiel itself.
Now that the Newcastle district had been returned to British control, it became necessary to re-fortify Fort Amiel.
It was at this time that the wood conning tower was erected above the bricked Guard House. These upgrades are evident from 1901 dispatches to the Southern Australian Newspaper by Captain Campbell of the 6th Contingent from Australia. He related the following while stationed at Fort Amiel from the 26th of September 1901… “The fort is situated on a hill, and commands the valley below. Some extra defense works and repairs are being carried on, and a 15-pounder is being mounted on one corner, the ranges for which have been taken and handed over to us by the officer commanding the battery.”
Captain Campbell can be seen in this photograph, top row, second from left.
Campbell continues…”The garrisons at this place have been considerably strengthened,…” “Fort Amiel is an old landmark, having been used as a fort for many years. It is enclosed by a stonewall, which is loop-holed at short intervals; the buildings also pierced for the purpose of defense.”
We now know that the stone walls were rebuilt and some repositioned from their original planned positions of 1876. The photographic evidence, and positioning in the 1970’s bares this out.
This places a question mark against the fort’s present dimensions, for they do not necessarily reflect the timeline of the fort’s history. This is a difficult question – with no clear answer.
Campbell also relates that… “The house, and old residence, is now used as a military prison for short-sentence men, and at the present time contains five men,…” The building to which he refers is the central Commissariat Offices of prior times. Note. – this building’s 4 rooms were secured with sturdy iron bars up and until the restoration in the 80’s, giving the structure a strong impression of being a gaol.
During this devastating conflict – many thousands of Dominion and Colonial troops camped at Fort Amiel, or were marched through Newcastle to the front.
Troopers of the Australian Commonwealth Horse playing a game of cricket on the fields behind the Newcastle Town Hall, 1902. Old resident of Newcastle will remember these fields and will recall the positioning of an old circular fountain and pond in this area, now unfortunately destroyed.
I have a letter written by Private Donald Samuel McCallum, who was my Great Great Grandfather Alexander Wallace McCallum’s nephew. In it he relates being camped at Newcastle.
Just a few lines hoping they will find you quite well as I am happy as Larry. Since I last wrote we have traveled about 500 miles. We came to Newcastle from Durban right through all the country that Gen Buller had all his worst fighting and it is a terrible place especially round the Tugela River, nothing but great rocks. We were 32 hours in the train, and coal trucks at that. We were all ready incase of an attack but a devil-of-a-Boer did we see. We had a terrible storm where we were camped in Newcastle, our tents had about a foot of water in them. The chaps had three swags under their arms and were singing like nightinggales and I was on horse picquet. We have trekked thirty 30 miles to this place where we are doing garrison duty waiting for French to drive the Boers through the pass we are holding but I don’t think they will come this way because it is to well guarded by blockhouses. There is all of A Squadron here and we are in four troops. Two troops go out every night on outpost waiting for Jacky to come down from the Burgs. The Seventh got a up when young Len Butter got killed. They came into Newcastle the day after we left so we never had a chance to see them. General Lyttleton was here the other day and I was one of his escort along with George Rountree to see him and his staff across a drift about 2 miles away. This is all I have to say today as I got to get ready to go out.
Iso sal a gasby (goodbye)
The pass that Donald refers to in his letter above, is either Botha’s Pass to the Orange Free State, or Majuba Pass to the Transvaal. The Drift he refers to can be either the Ingogo Drift or Coetzee’s Drift (Koetze’s drift). See. Map above.
(Above) Donald Samuel McCallum photographed in South Africa. Enlisted as a Private (5087) Unit- 8CNIRAS. He embarked for South Africa aboard the ship SS. Surrey on the 1st of February 1902 from New Zealand. Donald survived the war. He is buried in Taruheru Cemetery, Gisborne, New Zealand, having died on the 23 April 1946. Donald’s brother Malcolm Campbell McCallum also served in this conflict, as did his many South African cousins like John Douglas Smith McCallum.
Donald writes the following letter to his father Samuel Wheatley McCallum and family back in Wellington, New Zealand.
From Campbell’s reports we now know that in October 1901, the contingents garrisoned at the fort were the 5th and 6th West Australians. Campbell writes…”The care of the fort has been handed over to the West Australians absolutely for the time being, and a guard is consequently being formed by the details of the 5th and 6th, who may from time to time be at the depot. These principally consist of men discharged from hospital waiting for an opportunity to rejoin the column.”
Company Cooks of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps camped outside Fort Amiel, Newcastle, 1900-1901. Their rudimentary kitchen consists of trenches for the heating coals, with the cooking pots placed above. They have delineated their camp with white painted stones to keep hungry soldiers at bay, and have proudly spelled-out their company’s name in little stones in the foreground.
John Bufton in his book ‘Tasmanians in the Transvaal War’ writes… “At 9.30 pm we at last steamed into our destination – Newcastle.” At this stage in the conflict the rail line to the Orange Free State and South African Republic had been repaired after the Boers had sabotaged rails and bridges, including blowing-up the Lang’s Nek Tunnel. This allowed the British to move troops at some speed from location to location as strategy deemed necessary. Open goods trucks were the usual transport for men and their horses, and this explains Bufton’s relief at arriving at the frontier town. One can only wonder if Bufton was aware that in the previous conflict of 1880-1881, that the men marched to Newcastle from Durban on foot.
He continues… “Transport was ready, and after untrucking our horses, looking very different from the sleek animals that had left the ship, 36 hours before, we marched out to camp on the high ground, about three miles beyond the town.” “We camped close by, and met with every kindness from Lieutenant-Colonel McLeish and all under his command.” McLeish of the Australian Commonwealth Horse, commanded the 2nd Battalion composed of the Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia contingents.
At the Fort Amiel Camp his unit was divided into separate camps, the Army Medical Corps in one (see image above); D and E Squadrons, with the 2nd Battalion and Headquarters to a camp alongside ‘Kitchener’s Kop’. For those interested, this ‘kopje’ bearing is due north of the fort and located adjacent to Park Avenue, in Hutten Heights. A small redoubt of dry- stone walling was constructed on the summit of this rocky eminence. Note. this ‘Kitchener’s Kop’ must not be confused with the other in the Northern Cape. Australian and New Zealand troops were being utilized at the time in the ‘Great Eastern Drive’ with the intention of encircling Generals De Wet and Louis Botha.
The redoubt atop Kitchener’s Kop, Fort Amiel, 1902.
One of the duties of Bufton’s garrison was to send soldiers to the surrounding hills as observers and signallers – for he writes… “Then ensued a somewhat tedious, but no doubt necessary period of detention, varied by outpost duty at night on the hills north of the camp, where shots were frequently heard, train escorts, and patrols to Monkey Pass, about 15 miles out – a change much appreciated by both men and horses, as the former enjoyed the novelty of scene and the clear running creek, and the latter reveled in the excellent grass.” The hills to which Bufton refers to is the Signal Hill range. A 4.7 inch gun was mounted at the fort to cover the railway line.
His reference to ‘Monkey Pass’ is a comical one stemming from someone in his unit mistaking a monkey ( a baboon) for a Boer spy at one of the local passes – probably Majuba or Botha’s Pass.
Private Walter Putland wrote in his diary that a wooden scaffolding was also erected on the summit, with the platform reached by a ladder. From here Signallers would receive and relay messages. He writes of this rickety contraption that was buffeted by strong winds making signalling difficult. He also wrote of a visit to Umbana. A hill to the north west of Newcastle on the road to Utrecht. Two companies of the Middlesex Regiment were stationed here and had built fortifications. This high-rise was used to relay messages to Utrecht and front line columns. Putland relates how some of these messages were composed of up to 385 words, taking a considerable time to receive and to relay, often well on into the night by using signal lamps. Putland relates that there were 30 signalling stations on the hills around Newcastle, some protected by “big” guns. They also signaled to several Blockhouses on the Biggarsberg and Slangberg halfway between Newcastle and Ladysmith.
Australian soldiers shot putting stones to pass time at Kitchener’s Kop, Fort Amiel, 1902.
Bufton writes of the notorious local storms… “Some very heavy storms passed over the camp. The lightning was something to remember, and the joys at outpost duty on such nights, crouching on the exposed hillsides amid blinding lightning, drenching rain, and inky darkness, are more easily imagined than described. If you moved a few yards to visit a piece of dead ground, you probably took several most disconcerting headers over successive ant heaps, and dropped into what had been a road, but was then a very respectable spruit.”
ACH Officer’s fare, Kitchener’s Kop, Fort Amiel, 1902.
Officers of the ACH taking lunch at their camp at Kitchener’s Kop, Fort Amiel, 1902.
Lieutenant George Cory of the ACH captured in the act of shaving. The camp at Kitchener’s Kop, Fort Amiel, 1902.
Lt. George Cory mending his uniform, at Camp, Kitchener’s Kop, Fort Amiel, 1902.
Troopers of the Australian Commonwealth Horse in Camp at Kitchener’s Kop, Fort Amiel, 1902.
Cory labeled this iamge comically as ‘My troop at Mess’ Kitchener’s Kop, Fort Amiel, 1902.
A brass fork found at Fort Amiel.
In March 1902 the Australian Commonwealth Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles were stationed until the end of the war at Fort Amiel. The Australian’s camp at Kitchener’s Kop and the New Zealanders a short distance away. They saw limited action, participating in the last few drives to corner the ‘Bittereinders’ (Boers who resisted the British until the end and after the peace) against the Drakensberg mountains.
Touching photograph taken by Lieutenant George Cory of his horse ‘Wally’ with Trooper Beehag at Kitchener’s Kop, Fort Amiel, Newcastle District in 1902.
Military buttons. (Below) General Service British Military Button.
Artifacts from the hills around Fort Amiel.
Photograph of the residents of Newcastle and soldiers from the Australian Commonwealth Horse from Fort Amiel await telegraphed news of the Peace. The Peace of Vereeninging was signed at Melrose House, Pretoria, on the 31st of May 1902 bringing to an end this disastrous and destructive war.
FORT AMIEL AND THE YEARS SUBSEQUENT TO THE WAR
In 1904 the Road Superintendant of the Public Works Department request that the buildings at Fort Amiel be put up for letting.
In 1928 – the Imperial War Department grants the land (now called Farm Fort Amiel) and fort buildings to the Newcastle Council.
In the 1930’s and onwards the O’Reilly Family hired the land and stead and resided at Fort Amiel. Presently, I believe the O’Reilly family to be the O’Reilly’s of the farms ‘Gordon’ and ‘Highton’ and after whom ‘O’Reilly’s Vlei’ is named that lies on the farm ‘Tweefontein’ that borders Fort Amiel. The patriarch of the family in 1900 was J. W. O’ Reilly. Later O’ Reilly’s were James John Thomas O’Reilly, John Robert O’Reilly
Fort Amiel was declared a National Monument on the 22nd of June 1979 in the South African Government Gazette.
In conclusion – this excerpt from the book ‘Diary of an African Journey’ by Sir Rider Haggard on his return trip to Natal in 1914, sums up for me much regarding Fort Amiel and War – firstly that the vicissitudes of time brings everything to dust. Secondly, it also says much about war, for when it is stripped of its gallantry and glory, it’s appalling suffering and heartache.
Haggard wrote…”I visited what used to be Fort Amiel where now there is nothing but a little stead and a graveyard full of bones of the victims of the Boer War. Last time I was here the mount was covered with cantonments and hospital tents in which, I remember, were many dying of wounds and gangrene.”
Graham Leslie McCallum