The steep slopes of the central Southern African plateau, descending downward in the direction of the oceans, are collectively known as the Great Escarpment. The eastern section, the Drakensberg, is a dramatic mountain range that the Zulu people call ‘the barrier of spears’.
Laing's Nek, one of several passes through these high peaks, is the lowest part of a ridge which slopes from Majuba to the Buffalo River. When the Boers rose in revolt against British rule in December 1880, they occupied Laing's Nek to stop British forces entering the Transvaal, the land north of the Vaal River in South Africa.
On 28 January 1881, a small British force led by Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley attempted to drive the Boers from the pass. The men were led up the hillside by Lieutenant Lancelot Baillie, carrying the Regimental Colour, and twenty-one year old Lieutenant Alan Richard Hill, carrying the Queen's Colour.
The battle began at around half past nine in the morning with a heavy bombardment of the Boer positions. Shortly afterwards, the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot advanced toward the summit, where they were fired upon by a line of Boers on the reverse slope. Woefully outnumbered by the Boers, the British suffered many casualties and were forced to retreat.
Lieutenant Hill, however, remained behind after the retreat was ordered and tried to carry Lieutenant Baillie, who was severely wounded, out of action. His efforts were initially in vain, as Lieutenant Baillie was shot dead. Undeterred however, Lieutenant Hill brought another wounded man out of action on his horse and afterwards returned and rescued another, all under very heavy fire. For his actions, Lieutenant Hill was awarded the Victoria Cross, the medal introduced by Queen Victoria twenty-five years earlier for conspicuous bravery in the presence of the enemy.
Over five thousand miles away from the lofty peaks of the Drakensberg, on the banks of the River Swale, is the North Yorkshire village of Maunby. Clustered around the village green are several farmhouses. Along the village’s mainstreet, known as The Row, is the village pub, The Buck Inn, and the peaceful churchyard of St Michael & All Angels. This is the burial place of Alan Richard Hill-Walker, who achieved the rank of major before his retirement from the army in 1901 and changed his family name to Hill-Walker after marrying in 1902.
Until recently, Major Hill-Walker’s grave was in poor condition. Moss and lichen were growing over the headstone, making the inscription hard to read. For visitors to the churchyard, the chances of noticing the grave were slim. Major Hill-Walker’s last resting place was fading into obscurity, like many of the graves of brave soldiers from the 19th century.
‘There’s been a great deal of interest in the graves of veterans from the First and Second World Wars,’ says Guy Aston, who coordinates the process of grave restoration at the Victoria Cross Trust. ‘The occupants of these graves are often within living memory. However, for the graves of soldiers from the Crimean War or the Boer War, it’s often a different story. Some of these are a mess. Others have even fallen over.’
Guy and a team of volunteers have made it their mission to clean and restore the graves of Victoria Cross holders, ensuring their memory lives on. For the purposes of cleaning the headstones, a superheated water system is deployed, removing biological matter and dirt without causing damage to the headstone itself. For headstones in urban areas, where over a hundred years of air pollution and smoke has left its mark, another machine that creates a vortex of air, water and granulate can remove carbon deposits. In some instances, when cleaning isn’t sufficient, a more thorough restoration can take place after permission from the church and surviving family members has been obtained. This might involve replacing pieces of stonework with pre-engraved resin fascias. Very occasionally, a brand new headstone can be commissioned.
In the case of Major Hill-Walker’s headstone, the cleaning process was sufficient to restore the stonework and reveal the inscription — a tribute to Major Hill-Walker and his son, Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Harry Hill-Walker, who was buried in the same plot after his death at sea in 1940 following a German air attack.
‘One of the most important aspects of grave restoration is the impact on and involvement with the local community,’ says Guy Aston. ‘For instance, Major Hill-Walker’s great-grandson, Peter Hill-Walker, was keen to make a contribution to the Trust. And after the cleaning process is complete, local members of the community, usually veterans, are often appointed as agents of the Trust. They make a visit to the grave twice during the year, maintaining the grass around the grave and taking photographs.’ The advantages of this maintenance reach far beyond the preservation of the grave itself. For these veteran volunteers, some of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the work provides a meaningful focus, a way of keeping them engaged.
Captain of the After Guard Thomas Pride was one of the two colour sergeants who kept the flag flying despite fierce fire which killed the other colour sergeant and severely wounded Pride himself. Captain Pride’s grave was restored with support from the membership of Amphibious Lodge, part of the Dorset family of Freemasonry lodges, which has a strong services background.
‘This particular restoration was very memorable,’ says Guy. ‘A commemoration was held in the churchyard, attended by the lodge’s Worshipful Master, the Charity Steward and the verger of All Saints Church. The grave was covered in a Union Flag which had been donated by the Imperial War Museum, and as I read Captain Pride’s citation, the flag was drawn aside to reveal the restored headstone.’
This story captures perfectly the legacy of the Trust’s work: the physical refurbishment of the headstones ensures the actions of brave soldiers are not forgotten, and the impact on the people who continue to live and work in the communities of these gallant men, no matter how long ago they served, can be transformational.
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Featured image by Charl Durand from Pexels