Thursday, September 22, 2011

17th Lancers

The other day I showed a 1903 photo of the newsstand at 23rd Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. In it you can see a reproduction of a painting from the Second Boer War. It's called "All that was left of them" and it shows a squadron of British cavalry under attack and apparently determined to fight to the finish. The squadron was part of the 17th Lancers regiment and the fight occurred at Modderfontein farm during the Battle of Elands River. This battle took place almost exactly 110 years ago on September 17, 1901.

It may seem odd that the only picture on display in the newsstand would be this one. The event wasn't hot news in 1903 and what's depicted isn't heroic in the usual sense: the lancers' suffering defeat in an ambush by rag-tag Boer farmer-soldiers. By 1903 it was surely known that the battle was at least partly the result of a mistake: some of the Boer commandos had put on captured British uniforms and the lancers couldn't at first tell whether they were being approached (and then surrounded) by friend or foe.[1]

It's possible that the guy who ran the newsstand had some connection to the fight, but just as likely that he showed the picture because it attracted business to his stand. Pictures of battle scenes — even, as here, scenes of imminent defeat — were popular and the painter of this one was one of the best, Richard Caton Woodville. There's inherently a lot of drama in a fight to the last man and Woodville has done a good job of showing both the desperate plight of the lancers and their determination to stand firm.

Here's a copy of the picture as full-color chromolithograph.

{Caption: Woodville, Richard Caton, 1856-1927: All that was left of them. A stirring incident of the late South African War; source: Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand}

A card that accompanies one copy of the print helps explain some of its popularity. The card reads:
All That Was Left Of Them.

At Modderfontein on September the 17th, 1901, the C Squadron of the 17th Lancers were surprised and surrounded. The odds were one hundred and fifty of our Lancers to four hundred of the enemy - the position untenable; - but answering their young officer's shout of 'Death or Glory Boys' they upheld that famous motto of their regiment by fighting till they fell by explosive bullets at twenty, ten, and even five yards.

Such deeds may not win battles, but such courage makes our nation.
The call 'Death or Glory' was the motto of the 17th Lancers and their cap badge showed a death's head with the motto "Or Glory".[1]

Here's what the cap badge looks like.[2] You can see it bottom left in the picture above.

{source: wikipedia}

This detail from the newsstand post shows the print.

{source: Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division}

The 17th has always been a "light" cavalry, meaning that it employed hunter-size horses rather than the large war-horses needed for heavy cavalry.[3] Originally they were dragoons, soldiers who rode to battle but dismounted to engage the enemy, but in the early 1820s they were converted to soldiers who fought on horseback — lancers.

The 17th fought in the battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution[5] and following the Battle of Long Island were encamped in and around Newtown — the locale where my great-grandfather, Louis Windmuller, would build his home.[6]


Some sources:

MODDERFONTEIN 17 September 1901 by R W Smith, Military History Journal, Vol 13, No 1, June 2004

The annals of Newtown, in Queens county, New-York

HISTORY OF QUEENS COUNTY, with illustrations, Portraits & Sketches of Prominent Families and Individuals. New York: W.W. Munsell & Co.; 1882

The 17th Lancers

The Birth of the American Cavalry

A History of the 17th Lancers (Duke of Cambridge's Own) John William Fortescue
Publisher: Macmillan and co.
Year: 1895

17th Lancers "Death or Glory"

17th Light Dragoons on the British Empire web site

The Battle of Long Island 1776 on the British Battles web site

17th Lancers in wikipedia

Battle of Elands River in wikipedia

Battle of Long Island

Battle of Long Island Hard Times followed Battle of Long Island by Gus Dallas, Printed by The Richmond Hill Record

17th Light Dragoons



[1] The 17th Dragoons page on the "British Empire" web site summarizes the fight: "A small group of Boers were forced to find new mounts, food and ammunition or face certain capture. They came across a small outpost of the 17th Lancers who were resting in the grounds of a farm house. The British mistook the Khaki clad Boers for British until they started a withering fire on the unprepared Lancers. The Boers were then joined by another troop of Commandoes who had heard the commotion from afar. These joined in from the rear of the Lancers and helped to inflict serious casualties on the troop of Lancers. In total, 36 Lancers were killed and many more were wounded. The worst aspect of this loss is that they themselves provided the Boers with further mounts and ammunition to continue fighting against the British for an even longer period of time." -- 17th Lancers

[2] The wikipedia article on the 17th Lancers explains: "In 1759, Colonel John Hale of the 47th Foot was ordered back to Britain with General James Wolfe's final dispatches and news of his victory in the Battle of Quebec. After his return, he was rewarded with land in Canada and granted permission to raise a regiment of light dragoons. He formed the regiment in Hertfordshire on 7 November 1759 as the 18th Regiment of (Light) Dragoons, which also went by the name of Hale's Light Horse. The admiration of his men for General Wolfe was evident in the cap badge Colonel Hale chose for the regiment: the Death's Head with the motto 'Or Glory'. In 1761 it was renumbered as the 17th."

[3] Until 1823, the 17th Lancers were the 17th Dragoons. The 17th Dragoons page on the "British Empire" web site explains the emblem: "The evocative Death's Head emblem has been used time and again by desperadoes and tribes from time immemorial. Its first use as a regimental emblem seems to have been by a German unit of Hussars known as the 'Totenkopf' Hussars. As many British units and soldiers had served in Germany at around this time as part of the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763). It is probable that they saw this emblem and revelled in its associations of piracy and plunder - perfect values to a Light Cavalry unit. Indeed, down to the present time the regiment is still commonly referred to as 'The Tots'." -- 17th Light Dragoons

[4] The 17th Dragoons page on the "British Empire" web site explains the difference between light and heavy cavalry in terms of horses: "The Light Dragoons main distinction from their heavier cousins was in the type of horse employed. Rather than use the big and burly heavy cart cobs the Light Dragoons preferred the use of smaller, leaner hunter horses (under 15.1 hands). Originally, the Light Dragoons were not equipped with swords of any sort rather their main armament was a carbine that could have a bayonet fitted, pistols and an axe. They were trained to be able to fire from the saddle. Speed and agility (of rider and horse) were prized over strength and sturdiness. These attributes would prove to be valuable ones in the small scale actions common to colonial campaigns for a long time to come." -- 17th Light Dragoons

[5] Regarding Bunker Hill, one source says "On the action on Long Island the 17th were to find themselves in an excellent position to trap the American army who were pinned with their backs to the river. Unfortunately, General Howe did not take advantage of the situation, and 12,000 Americans rowed to safety to Manhattan Island."

[6] The brigade was encamped where the IND subway yards sit today, near Queens Borough Hall, and officers and noncoms were billeted at homes in Newtown.

[7] Here's an account to the quartering of men in the area around Newtown. "The officers and noncommissioned officers occupied the homes of Queens citizens. Ten to 20 noncoms were assigned to a house. They were ordered to take over just one room in the house, and they shrewdly chose the kitchen, setting up hammocks in tiers. British officers were arrogant, and Queens folk had to tip their hats outdoors or stand like inferiors when speaking to them inside their own homes. Slave owners grumbled that their slaves tended to become snippy and disobedient after they saw how the officers pushed the master around." -- Battle of Long Island

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