Hampshire Men Lost on The Gold Coast

Shadows of a forgotten war are like a history lesson. Unlike some countries, Britain has no Panthéon or Valhalla, but its churches are a good substitute. One of the best is Winchester Cathedral. Its walls and floors are covered with inscriptions for the great and the good – and probably the not very good.

As a whole, they add up to a history lesson for the county and more broadly the country. One memorial which strongly evokes the past is a white marble tablet at the west end of the south aisle.  It records the death in January 1874 of James Nicol, who served in the 13th Light Infantry and the Hampshire Militia, before volunteering to fight in the 3rd Anglo-Ashanti War (the first two were in 1824 and 1863).

This long-forgotten conflict was sparked in 1872 when the port of Elmina on the Gold Coast– once active in the slave trade, now Ghana– was sold to the British by the Dutch. The King of Ashanti, named Kofi, who controlled the region from his capital at Kumasi, had previously received payment from the Dutch, but the British refused to pay. And this led to the Ashanti army moving south to attack the British Gold Coast Protectorate.

In an attempt to fight back, Sir Garnet Wolseley –later parodied in the Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance as the “very model of a modern Major-General” – was dispatched to rally local tribesmen hostile to the Ashanti. He was described in parliament by Disraeli as a man possessing “great knowledge of human nature as well as of military science”. But even he soon realised that the task was hopeless and sent for British troops. This is where Captain Nicol and many others stepped in.

The task faced by the soldiers under the command of Wolseley was enormous. Fresh from England, they were fighting in dense bush against determined enemies who knew the terrain intimately and were courageously defending their own territory. Nicol was killed on 29 January 1874 in what military historians call “a small action” at Borborassie. A dispatch spoke of him leading his men “with the devotion of an English gentleman”.

A much greater action at Amoaful, which was successful, took place two days later and allowed Wolseley to advance to Kumasi, only to find that the royal court had fled. The capital was torched and King Kofi, faced by a naval detachment supported by 700 Hausa and Yoruba fighters recruited from what is now Nigeria, surrendered and signed a peace treaty.

Today the story reads like colonial bullying. The campaign medal shows pith-helmeted men bludgeoning native Africans. But in a vote of thanks in parliament a month later Disraeli, fresh from defeating Gladstone in a general election, praised Wolseley and his troops to the hilt. The whole debate can be found in Hansard. Although there were some dissenting voices that accused the government of acting too slowly and not assessing the situation properly, in fact the 3rd Anglo-Ashanti War became a symbol of British military might.

Many men, such as the Scotsman Lt The Hon. Alfred Charteris, aide-de-camp of Wolseley, gave their lives defending the interests of the British Empire far from home. In parliament he was singled out by Colonel Robert Loyd-Lindsay, MP for Berkshire, as “an officer possessing all the advantages of high position, ample wealth, and good looks, and with qualities which rendered him certain to be able to derive the full enjoyment … [yet he] preferred the rough lines of a soldier’s career to remaining at home the favourite of the society of that great town [Aberlady].”

In Hampshire there are other traces of the war. In the All Saints Garrison Church, Aldershot, Lt Arthur Hardolph Eyre of the 90th Infantry is commemorated. He served throughout the war, displaying the “noble courage hereditary in his family” (he was the son of Major-General Sir William Eyre), but fell on 4 February 1874, “whilst leading the advanced guard in the last days of fighting before Coomassie [Kumasi]”.

The Royal Green Jackets Regimental Archive in the HRO contains material on the action of the Special Service Corps of the 2 Rifle Brigade on the Gold Coast in 1874. And a full narrative of the war was published by Captain (later Sir) Henry Brakenbury, who was part of the ‘Wolseley Ring’ of officers who played a central role.

In the whole of the 3rd Anglo-Ashanti War four VCs were awarded and, surprisingly, only 18 British were killed in combat, though more died from disease and many were wounded.

Some were brought back to convalesce in Netley Hospital, where they were visited by no less than Queen Victoria herself.

A modest sum gets a year’s entry to Winchester Cathedral, where a host of similar stories can be found. All inscriptions in the cathedral are recorded in a thick, large-format book in the verger’s office, where enquiries can be made.Add block