The wreck of SS Ismore, December 1899


In October 1899, war broke out in South Africa, between the British in Natal and the Cape Colony and the two independent Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Things quickly went badly for the British, and reinforcements were urgently called for. Based at Aldershot, it was almost inevitable that the 10th Prince of Wales’s Own Royal Hussars would be called on, and so it was that on 3rd November that the regiment sailed from Liverpool, bound for Cape Town.

A and B Squadrons (120 men with 120 horses) were on the SS Ismore with various artillery and medical units, while the rest of the 10th Hussars were on the Columbian. Both were cattle ships from the Atlantic trade. Nearly 100,000 people waved them off from Liverpool, but the Ismore was forced to shelter in the Mersey due to storms, and then put into Milford Haven because eighteen horses had died in the rough seas.

As a result, the captain of the ship ignored instructions to keep 50 miles off-shore until reaching Cape Town, and, not allowing for a strong 2-knot current, allowed his command, at 2.00 a.m. on the 2nd December, to run aground. The Ismore struck a reef off Paternoster Point, north of Cape Town and ripped her keel open.

It is reported that the crew were “… an evil and undesirable looking lot of foreigners” and refused to assist the soldiers on board. Fortunately, sea conditions were calm. This was lucky, because the troops, who were quickly at their positions and wearing life jackets, omitted to put a bung in the first lifeboat, which promptly sank! It took 90 minutes to launch the first boat successfully because attention had been drawn to sea water entering the engine room, which would have caused an explosion, so the tarpaulins covering the horses had to be cut away and used to protect the engine room.

Help was provided by the Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Niobe and HMS Doris, and the Columbian, which sent life boats to assist. Help also arrived from the shore, and by 8.00 a.m. most of the troops had landed safely, Major Alexander of the 10th being last to leave. (Incidentally, at least one gun from HMS Doris was later dismounted and used as an artillery piece to support the army on land during the campaign).

Sadly, of over 300 horses on board, only around 20 (figures vary) were saved. The troops had attempted to get the horses to swim to shore, but tragically they mostly swam round the ship or headed to the open sea. All the guns (the 63rd Field Battery, Royal Artillery had 6 field guns with them), ammunition and stores were lost.

For the men of the 10th, things didn’t improve quickly. They were ordered to march (on foot, of course) 15 miles across thick sandy ground, in a blazing southern hemisphere summer sun, to a harbour where they could be picked up. They were collected by the Columbian and eventually arrived in Cape Town on the 6th December and then moved by rail to Stellenbosch (in the heart of the South African wine-producing area) where they were remounted on small Argentinian ponies, which went on to give good service. On 16th December they joined the rest of the regiment and the war began in earnest.

The 10th Hussars went on to serve throughout the South African War, winning two Victoria Crosses amongst other awards. HorsePower Museum has many photographs and mementoes of the campaign, including many medals awarded to its soldiers. Both the regiment’s VCs (to Sergeant Engleheart and Lieutenant Milbanke) are on display.