Among the inscriptions and memorials in St Mary’s, Castle Street is a memorial to Corporal William Henry Cross of the 58th company of the Imperial Yeomanry, killed at the battle of Bethlehem on 7 July 1900 during the conflict variously called the Second Boer War or South African War.
The war originated in the tensions caused by the influx of ‘uitlanders’ (mainly British) into the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State during the gold rush of the 1880s. It was one of the most controversial of Britain’s colonial wars and a minority of public opinion, led by the young MP David Lloyd George and the journalist W. T. Stead, took the view that the brave Boers were quite entitled to fight for the independence of their homelands.
This conflict eventually resolved itself with the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, with largely Boer-led governments of a dominion owing allegiance to the British crown until the rise of the extreme Afrikaner National Party and the imposition of apartheid after the Second World War resulted in the creation of a Republic of South Africa outside the British Commonwealth.
In the memorial, Cross is shown as a corporal at the time of his death, although according to the lists compiled by the Boer War researcher Steve Watt, and confirmed by Evelyn Williams’ researches into military records, he held the junior rank of lance-corporal.
He was born in 1879 to parents who had migrated to Reading from different parts of the country. His father, William (1849-1905), came from Banwell, near Weston-Super-Mare, in Somerset and his mother Alice née Foreman (1851-1914) from Flomaton, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. William senior was a tin smith, following his father Charles Cross, who was a tinplate worker. It seems likely that he came to Reading seeking employment at the large tin works of Huntley Boorne and Stevens, especially given that the 1881 and 1891 censuses show him living at 42 Mill Lane and 34 Elgar Road, both within easy walking distance of the works. He married Alice in 1874 in Reading. Their son, William Henry, attended the British School in Southampton Street and subsequently worked as a telegraph messenger and postman.
Despite the efforts of Lloyd George and company, many young Englishmen were keen to fight for Queen and country, resulting in the creation of the Imperial Yeomanry at the end of 1899. Following a string of defeats for the British during ‘black week’ in December 1899, when they successively lost the battles of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso, the British government realized they were going to need to draw on resources beyond the regular army and a royal warrant creating the Yeomanry was issued on 24 December 1899.
It was a volunteer cavalry regiment, based around existing reserves known as yeomanry regiments, with a final strength of around 35,000. The Berkshire contingent, with headquarters in Yeomanry House on Castle Hill (currently the Reading Register Office), formed the 39th Company, 10th Battalion and the 58th Company, 15th Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry, the latter being that to which Corporal Cross belonged. The Berkshire Yeomanry continued after the conclusion of the Boer war, into the First World War and Trooper Potts VC belonged to the 1/1st Berkshire Yeomanry.
According to the Berkshire Chronicle, Cross was given a send-off by his Post Office colleagues on Tuesday 27 February with a smoking concert held at the Beehive Commercial Hotel in Broad Street [ref 2]. He was presented with various gifts including a silver mounted pipe, pouch, tobacco and cigarettes. In reporting his death, the Chronicle stated that [ref 3] “at the time that volunteers were asked for, Cross had never handled a rifle nor ridden a horse, but he proved a smart recruit, and thoroughly justified his promotion”. Such lack of experience was by no means rare among those who volunteered for service in the Yeomanry.
By the time of the Battle of Bethlehem in which Cross was killed, the tide had turned in favour of the British. Under the leadership of Roberts and Kitchener, the besieged towns of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking were relieved and the fight was then taken into enemy territory with Roberts annexing the Orange Free State on 28 May. The British then moved into the Transvaal which was annexed on 1 September. However, the Boers continued to fight a guerrilla campaign against the British, so that the war dragged on for a further two years.
Bethlehem is located in what is now known as the Free State Province (FSP) of South Africa, formerly the Orange Free State, so that the battle took place in the context of this rear-guard action by the Boers. Today Bethlehem is the centre of one of the ten districts of the FSP, located 150 miles from the capital, Bloemfontein. It lies in a valley near the Rooiberg Mountains at a height 5,600 ft. and is a fertile area with a tradition of wheat-growing. Indeed, it seems that the biblical name was chosen because Bethlehem means in Hebrew ‘house of bread’.
An account of the battle exists in the memoirs of the Boer general Christiaan De Wet (1854-1922), from which the extracts below are taken:
I now made up my mind to defend the town of Bethlehem. The following morning I went with the Generals and Commandants to reconnoitre the country, so that I might be able to point out to each of them the position that I wished him to occupy.
Our line of defence began at the south of Wolhuterskop (a kop to the south-west of Bethlehem), and extended from there to the north-west of the town.
When I had given my instructions to the officers, they returned to their commandos, which were stationed behind the first ridges to the south of Bethlehem, and brought them to the positions I had assigned to them.
So many of the horses were exhausted, that a large number of the burghers had to go on foot…
At four o’clock that afternoon the advance guards of the enemy approached; and fifteen of their scouts made their appearance on the ridge to the north of the town. The burghers reserved their fire until these men were almost upon them. Then they let their Mausers speak, and in a moment there were nine riderless horses. The other six English made their escape, although they must have had wounds to show for their rashness.
Only a few moments had passed before the roar of guns was mingled with the crack of rifles, and the whole air was filled with the thunder of battle.
Everywhere the burghers fought with the utmost valour… Whenever the enemy approached our positions, they were met by a torrent of bullets. And thus the day came to a close.
But the next day a large force of English appeared from the direction of Reitz…
The attack was pressed with the greatest vigour on the positions held by Commandants Van Aard and Piet Fourie. It became impossible for these officers to maintain their ground; and, at about twelve o’clock, before I was able to send them any reinforcements, they were compelled to give way.
Thus retreat became inevitable, and the enemy entered Bethlehem.
The Battle of Bethlehem was a relatively minor one in the story of the war but it resulted in a British victory to which Lance-Corporal William Henry Cross contributed his life. Apart from the plaque in St Mary’s on Castle Street, Cross is now listed in the Trooper Potts memorial which contains the names of 40 men killed in the Boer war, three officers, three NCOs (including Cross) and 34 privates.
There is also a very similar plaque in St Mary’s parish church, erected by the county of Berkshire, commemorating another soldier of the 58th, Private Harold Alfred Barker, who died of enteric fever the previous month.
Efforts to locate any link between Corporal Cross, his parents and St Mary’s on Castle Street have so far proved unsuccessful. All that can be said is that the war was very much on the minds of the congregation with regular services on Wednesday afternoons at 3pm during the summer of 1900 with ‘intercession for soldiers’ as their object.
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2017 St Mary’s Castle Street newsletter with photos in June 2017.
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