AJ Montgomery: Part 2 – Survivor of the SS Ismore Ship Wreck in 1899

Despite opposition from his family, Arthur John Montgomery enlisted as a Cavalryman on the 4th May 1897 in London. Travelling to Newbridge, Ireland, he then underwent his training. After completion of his course and promotion to a Corporal, he was posted to Aldershot in England. Rumours of an impending war in South Africa were confirmed on the 11th October 1899 when war was declared.

As a member of the 10th Hussars, AJ Montgomery – “Monto” to his friends – was shipped to the Cape. On November 4th, the vessel embarked 455 men of the 63rd Field Battery, No.9 Company of R.A.M. Corps, “A” Squadron of 10th Hussars, and one troop of “B” Squadron, plus 6 field guns, 334 horses and 22 vehicles, stores and ammunition, and sailed for South Africa in the early morning of November 6 under command of captain Frederick Crosby. On the early morning of the 3rd December 1899, the SS Ismore struck a rock off Columbine Point 13 miles from the Dassen Island.

This is the personal story of AJ’s experiences on that fateful voyage from embarking on the SS Ismore on the 4th November 1899 until he is once again on terra firma on the 3rd December 1899. The narrative has been edited for readability and grammar, but it still remains largely the voice of the survivor narrating his concerns and fears during his eventual voyage.

Main picture: Painting of AJ Montgomery of the 10th Hussars

In the meanwhile, and in anticipation of our deployment to South Africa, a large number of Reservists had been recalled for service together with many older NCOs. Due to this surplus of NCOs, I had to revert once again to a Trooper like many other younger corporals had also been compelled to do so, even though some had been promoted to corporal many months prior to when I had received my promotion.

Badge of the 10th Royal Hussars

Colonel R.B. Fischer paraded us dismounted in a hollow square in the large Riding School and gave us an inspirational talk, informing us how the Regiment had always been in the front line. He also explained what an excellent record the Regiment possessed and hoped that the Regiment would soon be on active service and do its duty as the Regiment had previously done. That was the gist of his talk. Left unsaid were any reasons why we were going to fight, or any political rhetoric. He cut a fine figure of a soldier as he stood on the balcony with his officers arrayed around him. We entrained that night in our new kit. What a job of hard work it all entailed leading out own horses up the ramps into the horse trucks in the pouring rain. Dressed in our unfamiliar khaki, putties instead of jack boots and helmets instead of busbies, all in the dark of night. Then it was on to Birkenhead where our ship was sailing from. I recall sitting in the coaches soaked up to the knees and packed like sardines. When we arrived at the docks, we had to wait a long time in the early morning for the horses to be moved up to our ship for the transfer from their trucks. After what seemed like an eternity, the horses were loaded onto the ships as well as our kit and heavy baggage stowed away. It was only now that we had a little time to look around us. The ship was named the SS Ismore of about 3,000 tons. I guessed that it had previously been used to ship cattle to North America. I found out that the troops comprised our A Squadron and one troop of 13 Squadron, a Field Howitzer Battery of Artillery and a Field Ambulance Company. In total this consisted of about 455 troops together with crew as well as 334 horses. The rest of the Regiment was conveyed in the SS Columbia. The departure was delayed by one day owing to a heavy storm in the St George’s Channel and Irish Sea. This resulted in about a quarter of the crew deserting the ship based upon the well-known superstition about ships sailing on a Friday. As far as possible, Dock Police replaced the absentee crew by rounding up any volunteers among the dock workers and sailors waiting for jobs in the vicinity. So ended a day of high drama.

At long last, the ship was able to commence on her long voyage to the Cape. There was still a heavy swell on the sea and the horses in particular suffered terribly. Not being used to their cramped quarters and the unusual motion of the ship, they had to be attended to constantly. Meanwhile, the Troops were allocated to their different messes for feeding and sleeping, issued with lifebelts and hammocks. Later they were paraded in order to be allocated to their Boat Stations. Only then could they begin to settle down to life on board ship.

Loading the SS Ismore

We all had plenty of work to do such as stable duty which entailed cleaning out the horse stalls by hosing them down every morning and exercising the horses when weather permitted. Besides the duties related to our equestrian charges there were many other duties to perform such as dubbing and oiling our saddlery, painting all bright parts khaki colour, perform mess orderly duties and also assist the cooks in preparing the meals and cleaning up the kitchens. More importantly, we had to spend plenty of time with our horses. In an attempt to keep them fit, we had to constantly massage their legs and “wisp” their bodies. After being at sea for a few days, an epidemic called strangles, which is a kind of equine distemper broke out among the horses and caused many to die before the end of the voyage despite our tireless efforts.

10th Royal Hussars during the Boer War

At this point, the meat ration had begun to get rotten and we were ordered to throw it overboard. Compounding this was the fact that the bread rations were totally depleted. The cooks were now compelled to issue the standard standby: “Salt junk.” This is a poor kind of preserved beef stored in barrels and soaked in brine. This was supplemented with hard ship’s biscuits which were much inferior to and coarser than the biscuits that the army issued us later in the field. The cooks were supplied with pemmican, a compressed dried mixed vegetable which had to be well soaked in water before cooking. The ship’s canteen which had been well stocked with cigarettes, sweets, biscuits and all kinds of things which were usually stocked in the barracks’ dry canteen, was sold out after about a week at sea.

The sudden change in diet caused a great deal of grousing among the troops and soon precipitated an epidemic of stomach and digestive troubles. The sick bay started to fill up with the worst cases which caused extra work for the rest. It was not only the food that was problematic but also the water. Not only was it rationed but now it had a nasty insipid taste. When we arrived off Las Palmas, we were signalled to carry on and not stop for coal. This action was precipitated by the urgent requirement for reinforcements for General French’s Cavalry at the Front.

Major Hughs-Onslow on the Ismore

Volunteers were then requested from amongst the troops to assist in the stokehold – a compartment in a steamship in which the boilers and furnace are housed – carrying coal to the furnaces in wheel barrows. This took a lot getting used to.

The veterinarians and medical officers were being kept being busy. The former were attempting to save as many sick horses as possible and the latter were striving to get the sick men healthy and fit again. It was really pathetic to walk around the stalls where the sick horses were isolated. Some of them had to be held up in slings, being too weak to stand while others were coughing up their lungs. We had all been constantly riding and attending to them for months. Consequently we had grown quite fond of our fine large troop horses, each of which was like a friend to us.

 

After being at sea for 30 days, I happened to be doing my turn as the ship’s night guard. On being relieved at 2am, I returned to the fo‘c’sle forecastle where the ship’s guard was quartered. I had been dozing in my hammock for about half an hour when we were awakened by a loud crashing noise directly underneath us. One Trooper answering the general cry of “What’s happening?”, saying, “We are just bumping against the dock in Cape Town.” The ship began to swing over at an angle. The noise on deck of horses trying to keep their feet and cries of men shouting orders, reverberated through the ship. Then came the shrill blast of the Bosun’s whistle and urgent shouts of “All hands on deck.” At this call, the Sergeant of the Guard ordered all the guards on deck and instructed the trumpeter to sound the alarm.

When we arrived on deck, we noticed that the engines had stopped and that officers and NCOs were shouting orders for everyone to parade at their boat stations, which in the pitch darkness of the night, was not easy. Our officers then called the roll and enquired whether we all had our lifebelts adjusted. A few men from each troop were instructed to stand by our horses. By now, everybody had realised that our ship had struck a rock and was aground. We could hear the roar of the surf breaking around the rocks and we were enveloped in a fine mist.

Orders were now passed along the ship that we were to remain silent at our stations and not to move about. We were also informed that our commanding officer, the ship’s captain and the Chief Engineer were down below to ascertain the extent of the damage done. At a later stage, orders were issued that we could stand easy and that a few men from each troop would be allowed below to our messes to fill our haversacks with everything required for an emergency.

The men now started discussing the situation, wondering where we were wrecked, how far it was to Cape Town and also blaming the man on lock-out at the fore Crow’s Nest for not seeing the rocks in time. There were many questions that we asked each other. Would the ship stay wedged on the rocks or would it slide off and sink before we could disembark? Eventually my turn came to go below to put some kit into my haversack. Whilst getting it from my large duffle bag, all the lights went out. Thereupon, I grabbed my haversack and made my way between mess tables, stumbling over kit bags and other odds and ends flung about on the deck, strewn everywhere, dislodged by the force with which the ship had struck the rock.

Horses embarking on SS Ismore

After wandering cluelessly around in the darkness, at last I stumbled against the gangway to the deck above. I was extremely relieved to breathe the cool fresh air as I regained my troop at their Boat Station. The first signs of dawn were now showing over the eastern sky and we could see rocks and land over the side. The crew were now ordered to lower the lifeboats which was the first intimation that the ship had to be abandoned.

Our officers now gave instructions for some of us to open the iron doors in the side of the ship and to lead our horses out of their stalls so that they could be given a chance of swimming ashore. Many of them refused to leap into the water. To force them overboard, we attached two surcingles together with a man at each end and heaved them over.

Volunteers were then requested from among the troops to assist in rowing the lifeboats to the nearest beach. I was one of those who volunteered. The others were employed on jobs such as gathering saddlery, arms and equipment from the holds and lowering it into the boats. I happened to be in the first boat to reach the beach. We had to row very carefully dodging the rocks. By now the sun had risen high up in the sky. The shore proudly displayed high sand dunes and rocks and the littoral stretched away both north and south from us. Based upon this fact, we guessed that the shore was on the mainland and not an island off the South West African coast as many of us had conjectured.

After rowing the heavy boat on a course to find a suitable beach to land our troops and stores, we found a small sandy cove and landed safely despite nearly overturning the boat in the huge boisterous breakers. What a narrow squeak it had been for us. One boat following ours did overturn and was smashed to pieces on the rocks. Fortunately the crew and troop managed to swim the several yards to the beach, bruised and wet, but all the equipment in the boat was irretrievably lost.

After all the stores and equipment had been offloaded from the first wave of lifeboats, the officer in charge then ordered the rest of the boats to return to the wreck. We made three journeys backwards and forwards, bringing troops and equipment each time. On the way, we came across many horses swimming amongst the rocks and surf attempting to get ashore. Some were assisted by the boats’ crews whilst others were aided by troops swimming to them from the beach. Some were managed to be led by Troops by grasping their trailing head ropes attached to their headstalls and allowing them to swim behind the boats. Some were foolishly swimming away in the wrong direction out to the open sea and were drowned by exhaustion. All of the rest of the boats were doing their utmost to get as many troops ashore during daylight.

At last we made our final trip, our lieutenant urging us on, helping to row, in place of one of the boat’s crew who had collapsed from exhaustion. We all had sore and blistered hands, our backs ached, and we were terribly thirsty having had no water to drink. The ships water had been lost, spilled out after the Ismore had listed over to one side after striking the rock.

The Commanding Officer had in the meantime got into contact with some of the neighbouring farmers and a message had been sent by telegraph to Cape Town informing the authorities their about our plight.

The next morning, on looking for the wrecked ship, all that could be seen was a few feet of the stern jutting out of the sea. All of the guns, wagons and equipment still aboard, had been lost, gone to the bottom, as well as most of the horses. There had only been sufficient time to release very few of the 500 horses trapped aboard the stricken vessel and were left to their ghastly fate.

 

I counted only 22 horses saved and they were being attended to by our veterinarian staff as their condition was grievous after thrashing about among the rocks. We had managed to salvage all of our carbines and swords as well as some of our saddlery and helmets which had been kept by each owner. What a sight that early morning brought to our eyes. Men still in groups, some still sleeping laying about on the beach, some wandering about in search of water and yet others were looking for anything washed ashore.

AJ Montgomery later in life

At last we were ordered to fall in on parade and the roll was called. Trundling along came some ox wagons lent to us by some neighbouring farmers. Into them, we placed our surplus kit and equipment. We were then informed by the Commanding Officer that the farm folks would allow to fill up our water bottles from a nearby well. After that we were to march overland to St. Helena Bay where a ship would transport us to Cape Town.

 

Sources

Hand written memoirs by AJ Montgomery

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Ismore

Photographs of AJ Montgomery supplied by Alan Derek Montgomery, grandson of AJ Montgomery

 

Additional information

https://m.facebook.com/elne1/posts/pcb.10156438637449182/?photo_id=10216363624502135&mds=%2Fphotos%2Fviewer%2F%3Fphotoset_token%3Dpcb.10156438637449182%26photo%3D10216363624502135%26profileid%3D100006704311557%26source%3D48%26refid%3D18%26__tn__%3DEH-R%26cached_data%3Dfalse%26ftid%3D&mdf=1

 

 

 

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