At the start of the Boer War, 1899, the enemy use of large calibre guns, able to outrange the British field artillery, forced retreat after retreat, until within three weeks, Ladysmith was being shelled by heavy guns positioned on the surrounding hills. There is little doubt that the arrival of HMS Powerful’s Naval Brigade was a decisive factor in the town’s survival, the naval 4.7’s and 12 cwt, (long) 12 pounders being the only guns capable of engaging the Boer guns at long range.
One of the outstanding characters of the Siege of Ladysmith was the Warrant Gunner of HMS Powerful, Mr. W. Sims, described variously as: “One whose verbal encouragement was of a very high order,” and last but not least, from an admiring soldier, (quoted, I think, in “Thank God we kept the Flag Flying) “His language, Gawd you could have cut it with a knife.” For a Gunner, Royal Navy, to be “persuasive and eloquent” is in the natural order of things, as anyone who has ever met an R.N. Parade Gunner on his home ground will remember with a touch of nostalgia, if the passage of the years has been sufficient to take away the pain! Mr. Sims, however, seems to have been an outstanding practitioner of the art. There was, however more to him than a flair for “language”!
The arrival of HMS Powerful’s Naval Brigade in Ladysmith was dramatic; the 12 pounders were in action as soon as they could be off loaded from the train. “Long Tom,” a Boer 6-inch gun, was making life unpleasant, and succeeded in overturning one of Powerful’s guns. However two other 12 pounders opened up from the open plain in front of Gordon’s Hill with such accuracy that the third salvo “knocked out” the Boer gun, (albeit temporarily) and the crew took to their heels. The range was between 6,000 and 7,000 yards, the guns laid and fired by Mr. Sims.
Both of the Ladysmith 4.7 guns were “platform mounted.” Each gun weighed about seven tons, the platform consisted of four heavy baulks of timber. On the night of January 5th one of these guns was moved to Wagon Hill at the southern end of the defensive perimeter, arriving at the foot of the hill at about 0100. Gunner Sims was in charge.
The gun platform was half way off the wagon at the new location when twenty or thirty picked Boer marksmen gained a position on the crest of the hill. The thirteen bluejackets, plus a handful of Gordon Highlanders and Sappers manned the empty gun emplacement. The Gunner immediately took charge of the erratically firing mob of sailors and soldiers with such an easy flow of drill book “lingo” that he might have had the book in his hand. “Number,” he shouted, the answers came back in a mixture of West Country and Scots. “One to eight will be the right hand section, nine to fifteen will be the left hand section. Right hand section will fire a volley while the left hand section loads, right hand section Ready, Present, Fire.”
Shortly after 1300 a fresh assault was made on Wagon Hill, Gunner Sims and the 4.7 gun’s crew had been relieved at noon, and had just finished eating when there was a sudden increase in the firing and a loud shouting, then they saw a confused mass of men tumbling down the hill yelling that the Boers were on top and up to the gun emplacements. The Gunner, realising that it was a momentary panic shouted “Naval Brigade”, (there were only thirteen of them!) “Extend in skirmishing order, to the left and right, Forward,” and led them up the few yards to the crest of the hill, fixing bayonets as they went and expecting to see a row of hairy faces appearing over the crest. They found Colonel Ian Hamilton pointing his revolver at the solitary Boer and shouting “Come back, men.” One stoker was killed and an A.B. badly wounded. Shortly afterwards Gunner Sims had his rifle blown out of his hands by a piece of shrapnel. In view of his outstanding reputation for language it is a pity that no one saw fit to record his words for posterity; Shakespeare himself might have gained a rival!