The Rhodesian Soldier

amaNdebele in period dress, complete with Martini-Henry’s (Photo thanks Lewis Walter)

Col. J. A. Spreckley CMG

“…cheery little dinner at the hotel, to which came Sir Richard Martin, Colonel and Mrs Spreckley, Captain and Mrs Selous, Captain and Mrs Colenbrander – all heroes and heroines of the rebellion. How Spreckley made us laugh, fooling around the piano as if he were just going to sing!”                                                      

Spreckley returned to England on six months’ leave from Willoughby’s Consolidated, during which time he received his CMG decoration from the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Still not one to stay in one place for long, he headed back to Bulawayo for the official arrival of the railway line in the town. Here the citizens feted their hero of the Rebellion by presenting Spreckley with a cheque to buy a presentation plate. He used the money to have made from The Goldsmith and Silversmiths’ Company, what can only be described as a magnificent trophy depicting scenes on plaques of the Bulawayo laager as well as of amaNdebele shields and arms. The trophy is surmounted by an enraged lion wounded by an assegai, while the pedestal carries finely modelled statuettes of a Trooper of the Bulawayo Field Force and an amaNdebele warrior armed with assegai, shield and knobkerrie. 

In the early stages of the South African War, Lt Colonel Spreckley, now Officer Commanding ‘A’ Squadron, was part of Colonel Plumer’s force based at Ft Tuli. Plumer’s task was to defend the various drifts across the Limpopo, Macloutsie and Shashi Rivers from being used by Republican forces to infiltrate Rhodesia. On 2 November 1899, four hundred men from the Zoutpansberg Commando circled around Spreckley’s position at Rhodes Drift and headed into Rhodesia. The Transvalers struck at Bryce’s Store, overwhelming a convoy of wagons carrying supplies to Spreckley. Fearing for the safety of Ft Tuli, Plumer recalled all his squadrons, but Spreckley found himself in a very difficult situation, as the enemy started shelling his position, killing nearly all the animals. His retreat was cut off and his defences exposed in the rear. 

Typical of so much of the questionable tactics that would characterise the strategies of the Republicans during the war, the commando did not close in on Spreckley, preferring to pin him down with fire from their Mauser rifles. Spreckley and his men lay motionless until nightfall, when they silently crept away into the dark, around the enemy position and north back to Tuli. The next morning the Republicans again shelled the position now vacated by Spreckley and his squadron, but it was only at noon that they discovered that their adversary had gone. In another surprising decision, the Commando entrenched themselves at the store instead of carrying out an assault on a very vulnerable Ft Tuli. 

Colonel John Anthony Spreckley CMG

On 22 November 1899, the Illustrated Mail had this to say of Spreckley: 

“One of Colonel Plumer’s best officers, Colonel Spreckley, is in charge of a patrol of Rhodesian Rifles at Tuli, where he has had a brush with the Boers. He has had lots of experience of South African warfare. He was through both the Matabele wars, and distinguished himself mightily. He has had many vocations, among others ostrich-farming, stock-broking on the Rand, mine prospecting, railway clerking, and actual digging for gold. He is one of the best-known men in Rhodesia, and immensely popular with everybody, from Mr Rhodes downwards. Some few years ago he married the sister of poor Borrow, who was killed with Alan Wilson and his ill-fated party. Spreckley has immense animal spirits and a gorgeous sense of fun; amongst other things, he makes a wonderfully good amateur clown; but he can fight too". 

On 29 August 1900, nine days after he was killed in action, The Derbyshire Advertiser carried this obituary:                                                   

Reporter: “What do you say with regard to the fighting prowess if the Matabele?” 

Spreckley: “They will never fight in the open again. When they take to the rocks the problem is rendered rather a difficult one, as they are able to exist on very little. But I don’t think they would go in for this kind of warfare, their hope being to kill all the white people in the country and hold it. As long as the Matabele let us alone we shall let them alone.” 

Reporter: “Do you think that the Matabele, like the red man of America will ever be exterminated or nearly so?” 

Spreckley: “I don’t think so, for on the one hand they are increasing about ten times as fast as we are. You see we have no power with regard to the regulation of their marriage customs.” 

Reporter: “You think there is a danger from this increase?” 

Spreckley: Oh no. I think that as they grow up in contact with the whites they will get more civilised in the same way as have Kaffirs in the Cape Colony.” 

Reporter: “What is your opinion about missionary work out there?” 

Spreckley: “My advice to missionaries is to let alone the scriptural teaching until they have taught the people how to work. I think they are beginning at the wrong end of the stick.” 

Reporter: “What is your advice to Englishmen who think of going out to South Africa?” 

Spreckley: “A good many ask me that question. I say that if a young man is in a billet at home where he has been for some time, let him stick to it, unless he can get a good place before going out. Africa is not a place to be stranded in, as things are more expensive than they are here. Lots of young fellows go out there with nothing to do, and get tired of looking for work, end very badly. Some of the police forces out there are all very well for fellows for a short time, to give them an opportunity to look round the country, but above all the two things most required out there are to keep steady and not be afraid of work.” 

As Maj General A.H. Paget’s forces struck out on the northern road close to the railway line, Baden-Powell moved forward on the right across the Pienaar’s River, with the Rhodesia Regiment covering his advance. Spreckley suddenly came upon a party of one hundred mounted Republicans of the Waterberg Commando, precipitating a fight which left Colonel Spreckley and four of his men dead, Sgt George Blurton, Cpl Robert Caffyn, and Cpl Alexander Downis, all of ‘A’ Squadron, and Tpr Francis Forster of ‘E’ Squadron.                                                                           

Colonel Spreckley is buried in the Hammanskraal Cemetery, near where he died. Robert Baden Powell’s hard-hitting comments and tribute so aptly describe the pioneer, prospector, miner, businessman and the then part-time soldier, that was Colonel John Anthony Spreckley; 

“Spreckley himself is an ass (this was not intended for publication, and if it should happen to meet the eye of the gentleman alluded to, I trust he will be magnanimous enough not sue me for libel – especially as I make this statement believing it to be true) in one respect namely, because he did not take up soldiering as his profession instead of gold and pioneering – successful though he has been in the other line. He has all the qualifications that go to make an officer above the ruck of them. Endowed with all the dash, pluck, and attractive force that make a man a born leader of men, he is also steeped in common sense, is careful in arrangement of details, and possesses a temperament that can sing “Wait till the clouds roll by” in crises where other men are tearing their hair out”. 

Footnote: I would like to find out more about the trophy that Spreckley had made. Does anyone know anything about it or know of its current whereabouts? Does anyone have a photograph? According to Hickman, writing in the late 1960s, the trophy still remained in the family, but he does not say if in Rhodesia or in the UK. I have also only just found out that not only did he attend school here in Derby where I live, but he also gave an interview to the Derby Advertiser on 25 September 1897, which would have been during his visit to the UK to receive his CMG. 

“It is with very great sorrow that we have to record the death of Lieut. Colonel J.A. Spreckley, C.M.G. He died the death of his choice, and the one which befits his career and character the best – charging the foe at the head of British Scouts on the battle field. None except those who have the privilege of knowing ‘Jack’ Spreckley personally can realise the pathos of this strong life brought to a sudden end. Colonel Spreckley’s appearance did not belie his character and reputation. Slightly above the medium height, his broad square shoulders, his deep chest, sturdy limbs, frank blue eyes and general debonnaire carriage bespoke him at once as the good-tempered daredevil he was. It must not be assumed, however, that he was this alone. Though always ready for fun and merriment in times of relaxation, at other times, in office, at the mines, dealing and negotiating business Spreckley was as keen, as energetic, and as painstaking as any business man one will meet. When ear came he turned his attention to the defence of his colony with equal thoroughness, and the services that he rendered over a long series of years – during the Matabele war as well as the present campaign – were recognised by rapid promotion, and the gift by the Queen of a Commandership of the Order of St Michael and St George. He was known at home as high-spirited, warm-hearted lad; his Rhodesian life developed his fine physique, his love of adventure, and his dash and readiness of resource. His success in Rhodesia has been solid, his position as a soldier has been recognised by his Sovereign, his name was familiar to all who have followed the history of South Africa during the last dozen years, and it is especially regrettable that after all the dangers that he has escaped he should have fallen at last in a mere skirmish of outposts.” 

Fort Mangwe during the Rebellion

How ironical to sit in England, paging through the enormous but sadly very brittle pages of The Derbyshire Advertiser and The Derby Mercury from 1893 to 1900, and finding articles about Rhodesia and the South African War. On 25 September 1897, The Derbyshire Advertiser carried an extensive and exclusive interview with Spreckley, who was at the time visiting the UK to receive his CMG award from the then Prince of Wales. Here are some of the more interesting excerpts. 

Reporter: “Excuse me interrupting you Colonel, but a statement has been made that Rhodesia will be worthless to England. What is your opinion?” 

Spreckley: “I am quite sure that any number of countries would only be too glad to get Rhodesia if England wants to throw it up. Amongst the first would be the Boers. The country is admirably adapted for cattle farming and agriculture in general. As regards its mineral wealth of course you cannot speak of that until you have tested the rock on a large scale by crushing it.” 

Spreckley's entry on the official Rhodesia regiment nominal roll

Spreckley, however, remained unsettled, briefly staying in Kimberley before moving to Johannesburg for a couple of years. A bad case of fever saw him on the move again, this time down to Durban and then by sea to Cape Town, where he wanted to recuperate in the milder climate. Here he met up with his prospecting companions and, upon hearing that an expedition was being planned into Mashonaland, he joined the Pioneer Corps as Paymaster-Sergeant. Signing up on 30 May 1890, Spreckley reunited with his earlier friends, now all serving as commissioned officers under the leadership of Major Frank Johnson. With the Column in training at Camp Cecil on the banks of the Limpopo River in Bechuanaland, Spreckley was assigned to ‘A’ Troop under the command of Maurice Heany, before later being transferred to ‘B’ Troop , where he was appointed Market Master to the Column. After the founding of Ft Salisbury and the disbandment of the Column Spreckley, together with so many of his companions, struck out into the veld in search of El Dorado. 

By June of 1892, he had become the Mining Commissioner for the Lomagundi District, basing himself at a site where the settlement of Sinoia developed. Towards the end of that year, Spreckley travelled back to Britain with Henry Borrow, where he met his future wife in the form of Borrow’s sister, Beatrice. He returned to Salisbury in June 1893, to be given command of ‘C’ Troop of the Salisbury Horse which, together with ‘A’ Troop under Heany and ‘B’ Troop under Borrow, would form part of the Salisbury Column, under the command of Major Patrick Forbes, that would march on to GuBulawayo to subdue the amaNdebele. Joining up with Major Allan Wilson’s Victoria Column at Iron Mine Hill on 2 October of that year, the first engagement with Lobengula’s impis took place on the Shangani River on 25 October, followed a few days later by the Battle of Bembesi. On 4 November, the force entered a deserted, burning GuBulawayo, the king having fled north in his wagon. A pursuit column was organised under Forbes’ command, which included ninety men of the Salisbury column with officers Spreckley and Heany. The rest of the expedition as made up of just over two hundred men of the Victoria Column. As the column progressed, rations started running low and dissatisfaction amongst many of the troops grew, culminating in Forbes holding a meeting with some of the men and subsequently sending back all the Salisbury men including Spreckley, except for twenty two under Borrow, a fateful decision as it turned out for Spreckley’s dear friend. Spreckley and Johnson would erect a pulpit memorial in the Anglican Cathedral, Salisbury, carrying the inscription, “To the Glory of God and in memory of Henry John Borrow. Killed at Shangani December 4th, 1893”. 

Spreckley led sixty seven men of the Salisbury Horse back to Ft Salisbury, their numbers significantly reduced through the war and many others electing to stay in Matabeleland. Spreckley was later appointed magistrate of Ft Victoria, and ten months thereafter returned to Bulawayo where he became General Manager of Sir John Willoughby’s gold mining company. It was here, on 31 August 1895, that Spreckley married Beatrice Mary Spreckley and decided to settle down. Political events in the sub-continent would, however, almost embroil Spreckley in the debacle that was the Jameson Raid. Willoughby joined the raiding party, handing over his command of the Rhodesia Horse to him, together with various letters which were only to be opened if ‘certain’ events were to take place. Spreckley would receive telegraphed instructions that the Rhodesia Horse must not under any circumstances move to assist Jameson. This telegraph and other letters left in Spreckley’s care almost implicated him in Jameson’s impetuous adventure. 

At the outbreak of the Matabele Rebellion, Frederick Courteney Selous, fearing for the safety of his wife at their farm in Essexvale, placed her in the care of the Spreckleys, Spreckley himself now an appointed Colonel in the Bulawayo Field Force and second-in-command to Colonel William Napier. Spreckley and Bulawayo Mayor Scott, had been very instrumental in laagering Bulawayo and establishing “order out of chaos”. During the insurrection, Spreckley saw action at Umgusa River where his force, together with elements of the Africander Corps and the Grey’s Scouts, engaged and routed a thousand-strong impi of amaNdebele, and led numerous patrols. In a little cameo of the time, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell in his dairies, writes of a...

The official British history of the South African War, records the pursuit by British forces of 246 Free Staters under the elusive General de Wet, east through the Magaliesberg Mountains away from the recent battle at Elands River. Various other Commandos were also present in the area north of Pretoria, trying to consolidate their forces with de Wet. Baden-Powell and Colonel T.E. Hickman, with some eight hundred mounted men and half a battalion of the West Riding Regiment in ox-wagons, moved north of Hammanskraal on 19 August 1900, in pursuit of a Republican commando. Included in this force were ‘A’ and ‘E’ Squadrons of the Rhodesia Regiment under Lt Colonel Spreckley.

Rebellion action

As the South African War of 1899-1902 gained momentum, Colonel Spreckley of ‘E’ Squadron, Rhodesia Regiment, joined Major General Plumer's force for the relief of Mafeking. Later, whilst on patrol on 20 August 1900, his party was surrounded by a group of Republicans who, being dressed in khaki, were first taken for friends. When the mistake was discovered and Lieutenant Colonel Spreckley and his party were called upon to surrender, he reputedly replied "Never give in to them, lads" and was immediately killed. By his death, Rhodesia lost one of its best known and most popular men. He saw much service during that war and the early days of Matabeleland. On 7 May 1897, Spreckley had been appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for his services in the Matabele Rebellion.

But who was Colonel John Anthony Spreckley CMG?

Spreckley was born in 1865 at Fulbeck, near Lincoln in England. Educated in Derby, he left for South Africa in 1881, where he worked for four years on an ostrich farm in Grahamstown, before the lure of gold took him to the Witwatersrand. In 1885 he joined the Bechuanaland Border Police (BBP), but after only a year, joined his companions Frank Johnson, Maurice Heany, Henry Borrow and Ted Burnett, to seek a concession from Lobengula to prospect for gold in that part of the world. The amaNdebele king begrudgingly granted them permission, but the party found little of value in the streams and rivers along the Mazoe River. Upon arriving back in GuBulawayo, the young adventurers were forced to pay a fine of £100 in gold sovereigns to Lobengula, for alleged misconduct in the interior.