Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (9 & 10 May 2018)

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Date of Auction: 9th & 10th May 2018

Sold for £32,000

Estimate: £15,000 - £20,000

“I have had, in the last four years, the advantage, if it be an advantage, of many strange and varied experiences. But nothing was so thrilling as this: to wait and struggle among these clanging, rending iron boxes, with the repeated explosions of the shells and the artillery, the grunting and puffing of the engine - poor, tortured thing, hammered by at least a dozen shells, any one of which by penetrating the boiler, might have made an end to it all...”

“When in 1910 I was Home Secretary, it was my duty to advise the King upon the awards of the Albert Medal. I therefore revived the old records, communicated with the Governor of Natal and the railway company, and ultimately both the driver and his fireman received the highest reward for gallantry open to civilians.”

(Winston Churchill)
The Historic ‘Boer War’ Albert Medal pair awarded to Railway Fireman A. J. Stewart, Natal Government Railways, who, together with the Engine Driver (Charles Wagner) received his Albert Medal for gallantry in saving the armoured train and with it numerous lives at Chieveley following a Boer ambush on 15 November 1899, their heroic deeds famously being presided over by the young Winston Churchill, who was at the time a reporter for the Morning Post - When the driver’s face had been cut open by a shell splinter, Churchill implored him to remain at his post, telling him “that no man was hit twice on the same day and that a wounded man who continued to do his duty was always rewarded for distinguished gallantry...” - Churchill himself showed great gallantry in this action, following which he was captured by the Boers, ensuring his popular fame six weeks later when he made good his escape

Following his audacious escape from captivity, Churchill whilst passing through Pietermaritzburg visited the railway yard and asked to speak to Engineer Stewart, who, on receiving the message that someone important was asking for him, told them that he was in his dirty overalls, covered in oil and grease and in no fit condition to meet anyone important, on hearing this excuse, Churchill is said to have responded, “Dirty overalls are nothing compared to what he and I went through together, I have to shake his hand, oil and all” - Ten years later when Winston Churchill was made Home Secretary he made good his promise seeing to it that both Stewart and Wagner were awarded Albert Medals

Albert Medal, 2nd Class, for Gallantry in Saving Life on Land, reverse officially inscribed ‘Presented in the name of His Majesty King George the Fifth to Alexander James Stewart for Gallantry in saving life near Chieveley Station in Natal on the 15th November 1899’; Queen’s South Africa 1899-1902, no clasp (Mr A. J. Stewart, Natal Govt. Rlys.); together with his father’s South Africa 1877-79, no clasp (Pte. A. Stewart, P. M. Burg. Rifles); and original fitted case of issue for Albert Medal, good very fine or better (3) £15000-20000


Provenance: Purchased by the vendor from a direct descendent of Alexander Stewart in 1997.

Note: The Albert Medal, 1st Class awarded to Driver Charles Wagner is in the collection of the Military History Museum, Durban.

Sold with fifteen pages copied from the National Archives (ref. HO/45-10609/193129) which contains the original correspondence and recommendation submitted by Winston Churchill in 1910 and approved by H.M. King George V.

A.M. London Gazette 14 June 1910.

The original joint citation with the engine driver, Charles Wagner published in the London Gazette states:

The KING has been pleased to approve of the Albert Medal of the First Class being conferred upon Mr. Charles Wagner and the Albert Medal of the Second Class upon Mr. Alexander James Stewart, both of Pietermaritzburg, for gallantry in saving life.

On the 15th November, 1899, near Chieveley Station, in Natal, an armoured train which had been sent out on patrol was intercepted by the Boers and three carriages were thrown off the line. These vehicles lay between the rest of the train and the track over which it must travel on its homeward journey, and until they were removed the train, the engine and its escort - about 150 men - were exposed to a severe converging fire of rifles and artillery from the surrounding hills. The sole means by which the line could be cleared was the engine, which moving to and fro butted at the wreckage until after about 50 minutes' work it was heaved and pushed off the track. The part played by the driver of the engine, Charles Wagner, and by the fireman, Alexander James Stewart, was therefore indispensable to the rescue of the wounded with whom the engine and its tender became crowded.

The working of the engine itself was a difficult matter, because at each collision with the wreckage at which it was butting it might easily have been derailed. The danger was exceptional. The heavy fire of shells and bullets inflicted many casualties, and more than one quarter of all in the train were killed or wounded. The shells repeatedly struck the engine and at any moment might have exploded the boiler. The driver, a civilian, under no military code, was wounded severely in the scalp by a shell-splinter almost immediately. Although in great pain he did not fail during the whole of this affair to manage his engine skilfully, and by clearing the line saved from death and wounds a proportion at least of the 50 or 60 persons who effected their escape upon the engine and its tender. Both the driver and his fireman are still in the service of the Natal Government Railways.

The following is extracted from My Early Life: A Roving Commission, by Winston Churchill:

‘Nothing looks more formidable and impressive than an armoured train; but nothing is in fact more vulnerable and helpless. It was only necessary to blow up a bridge or culvert to leave the monster stranded, far from home and help, at the mercy of the enemy. This situation did not seem to have occurred to our commander. He decided to put a company of the Dublin Fusiliers and a company of the Durban Light Infantry into an armoured train of six trucks, and add a small six-pounder naval gun with some sailors landed from H.M.S. Terrible, together with a breakdown gang, and to send this considerable portion of his force out to reconnoitre towards Colenso. Captain Haldane was the officer he selected for the duty of commanding this operation. Haldane told me on the night of November 14 of the task which had been set him for the next day and on which he was to start at dawn. He did not conceal his misgivings on the imprudence of the enterprise, but he was of course, like everyone else at the beginning of a war, very keen upon adventure and a brush with the enemy. 'Would I come with him?' He would like it if I did! Out of comradeship, and because I thought it was my duty to gather as much information as I could for the Morning Post, also because I was eager for trouble, I accepted the invitation without demur.

The military events which followed are well known and have often been discussed. The armoured train proceeded about fourteen miles towards the enemy and got as far as Chieveley station without a sign of opposition or indeed of life or movement on the broad undulations of the Natal landscape. We stopped for a few moments at Chieveley to report our arrival at this point by telegraph to the General. No sooner had we done this than we saw, on a hill between us and home which overlooked the line at about 600 yards distance, a number of small figures moving about and hurrying forward. Certainly they were Boers. Certainly they were behind us. What would they be doing with the railway line? There was not an instant to lose. We started immediately on our return journey. As we approached the hill, I was standing on a box with my head and shoulders above the steel plating of the rear armoured truck. I saw a cluster of Boers on the crest. Suddenly three wheeled things appeared among them, and instantly bright flashes of light opened and shut ten or twelve times. A huge white ball of smoke sprang into being and tore out into a cone, only as it seemed a few feet above my head. It was shrapnel - the first I had ever seen in war, and very nearly the last! The steel sides of the truck tanged with a patter of bullets. There was a crash from the front of the train, and a series of sharp explosions. The railway line curved round the base of the hill on a steep down gradient, and under the stimulus of the enemy's fire, as well as of the slope, our pace increased enormously. The Boer artillery (two guns and a pom-pom) had only time for one discharge before we were round the corner out of their sight. It had flashed across my mind that there must be some trap farther on. I was just turning to Haldane to suggest that someone should scramble along the train and make the engine-driver reduce speed, when suddenly there was a tremendous shock, and he and I and all the soldiers in the truck were pitched head over heels on to its floor. The armoured train travelling at not less than forty miles an hour had been thrown off the metals by some obstruction, or by some injury to the line.

In our truck no one was seriously hurt, and it took but a few seconds for me to scramble to my feet and look over the top of the armour. The train lay in a valley about 1,200 yards on the homeward side of the enemy's hill. On the top of this hill were scores of figures running forward and throwing themselves down in the grass, from which there came almost immediately an accurate and heavy rifle fire. The bullets whistled overhead and rang and splattered on the steel plates like a hailstorm. I got down from my perch, and Haldane and I debated what to do. It was agreed that he with the little naval gun and his Dublin Fusiliers in the rear truck should endeavour to keep down the enemy's firing, and that I should go and see what had happened to the train, what was the damage to the line, and whether there was any chance of repairing it or clearing the wreckage out of the way.

I nipped out of the truck accordingly and ran along the line to the head of the train. The engine was still on the rails. The first truck, an ordinary bogey, had turned completely head over heels, killing and terribly injuring some of the plate-layers who were upon it; but it lay quite clear of the track. The next two armoured trucks, which contained the Durban Light Infantry, were both derailed, one still upright and the other on its side. They lay jammed against each other in disorder, blocking the homeward path of the rest. Behind the overturned trucks the Durban Light Infantry men, bruised, shaken and some severely injured, had found a temporary shelter. The enemy's fire was continuous, and soon there mingled with the rifles the bang of the field guns and the near explosion of their shells. We were in the toils of the enemy.

As I passed the engine another shrapnel burst immediately as it seemed overhead, hurling its contents with a rasping rush through the air. The driver at once sprang out of the cab and ran to the shelter of the overturned trucks. His face cut open by a splinter streamed with blood, and he complained in bitter, futile indignation. 'He was a civilian. What did they think he was paid for? To be killed by a bombshell-not he! He would not stay another minute.' It looked as if his excitement and misery-he was dazed by the blow on his head-would prevent him from working the engine further, and as only he understood the machinery, the hope of escape would thus be cut off. So I told him that no man was hit twice on the same day: that a wounded man who continued to do his duty was always rewarded for distinguished gallantry, and that he might never have this chance again. On this he pulled himself together, wiped the blood off his face, climbed back into the cab of his engine, and thereafter obeyed every order which I gave him.

I formed the opinion that it would be possible, using the engine as a ram, to pull and push the two wrecked trucks clear of the line, and consequently that escape for the whole force was possible. The line appeared to be uninjured, no rail had been removed. I returned along the line to Captain Haldane’s truck and told him through a loophole what was the position and what I proposed we should do. He agreed to all I said and undertook to keep the enemy hotly engaged meanwhile.

I was very lucky in the hour that followed not to be hit. It was necessary for me to be almost continuously moving up and down the train or standing in the open, telling the engine-driver what to do. The first thing was to detach the truck which was half off the rails from the one completely so. To do this the engine had to be moved so as to tug the partly derailed truck backwards along the line until it was clear of the other wreckage, and then to throw it completely off the rails. The dead weight of the iron truck half on the sleepers was enormous, and the engine wheels skidded vainly several times before any hauling power was obtained. At last the truck was drawn sufficiently far back, and I called for volunteers to overturn it from the side, while the engine pushed it from the end. It was very evident that these men would be exposed to considerable danger. Twenty were called for and there was an immediate response, but only nine men, including the Major of the Durban Light Infantry and four or five of the Dublin Fusiliers, actually stepped out into the open. The attempt was nevertheless successful. The truck heeled over further under their pressure, and the engine giving a shove at the right moment, it fell off the line, and the track seemed clear. Safety and success appeared in sight together, but one of the bitterest disappointments of my life overtook them.

The footplate of the engine was about 6 in. wider than the tender and jammed against the corner of the newly overturned truck. It did not seem safe to push very hard, lest the engine itself should be derailed. We uncoupled the engine from the rear trucks, and time after time moved it back a yard or two and butted forward at the obstruction. Each time it moved a little, but soon it was evident that complications had set in. The newly derailed truck had become jammed in a T-shaped position with the one originally off the line, and the more the engine pushed, the greater became the block.

It occurred to me that if the trucks only jammed tighter after the forward pushing, they might be loosened by again pulling backwards. Now however a new difficulty arose. The coupling chains of the engine would not reach by five or six inches those of the overturned truck. Search was made for a spare coupling. By a solitary gleam of good luck, one was found. The engine hauled at the wreckage and before the chain parted pulled it about a yard backwards and off the track. Now surely the line was clear at last. But again the corner of the engine footplate jammed with the corner of the truck, and again we came to a jarring halt. The heat and excitement of the work were such as to absorb me completely. I remember thinking that it was like working in front of an iron target at a rifle range at which men were continually firing. We struggled for seventy minutes among these clanging, rending iron boxes, amid the repeated explosions of shells and the ceaseless hammering of bullets, and with only five or six inches of twisted ironwork to make the difference between danger, captivity and shame on the one hand, and safety, freedom and triumph on the other.

Above all things we had to be careful not to throw the engine off the line. But at last, as the artillery firing steadily increased and the second gun came into action from the opposite flank, I decided to run a great risk. The engine was backed to its fullest extent and driven full tilt at the obstruction. There was a harsh crunching tear, the engine reeled on the rails, and as the obstructing truck reared upwards, ground its way past and gained the homeward side, free and, as it turned out, safe. But our three remaining trucks were fifty yards away, still the wrong side of the obstruction, which had fallen back into its original place after the engine had passed. What were we to do? Certainly we could not take the engine back. Could we then drag the trucks by hand up to the engine? They were narrower than the engine and there would be just room for them to slip past.

I went back again to Captain Haldane. He accepted the plan. He ordered his men to climb out of their steel pen and try to push it towards the engine. The plan was sound enough, but it broke down under the force of circumstances. The truck was so heavy that it required all hands to move it; the fire was so hot and the confusion so great and increasing that the men drifted away from the exposed side. The enemy, relieved of our counter-fire, were now plainly visible in large numbers on the face of the hill, firing furiously. We then agreed that the engine should go slowly back along the line with all the wounded, who were now numerous, and that the Dublins and the Durban men should retreat on foot, sheltering themselves behind the engine which would go at a foot's pace. Upwards of forty persons, of whom the greater part were streaming with blood, were crowded on the engine and its tender, and we began to move slowly forward. I was in the cab of the engine directing the engine-driver. It was crammed so full of wounded men that one could scarcely move. The shells burst all around, some striking the engine, others dashing the gravel of the track upon it and its unhappy human freight. The pace increased, the infantry outside began to lag and then to be left behind. At last I forced the engine-driver to stop altogether, but before I could get the engine stopped we were already 300 yards away from our infantry. Close at hand was the bridge across the Blue Krantz River, a considerable span. I told the engine-driver to cross the bridge and wait on the other side, and forcing my way out of the cab I got down on to the line and went back along it to find Captain Haldane, and to bring him and his Dublin Fusiliers along.

But while these events had been taking place everything else had been in movement. I had not retraced my steps 200 yards when, instead of Haldane and his company, two figures in plain clothes appeared upon the line. 'Plate-layers!' I said to myself, and then with a surge of realisation, 'Boers!' My mind retains its impression of these tall figures, full of energy, clad in dark, flapping clothes, with slouch, storm-driven hats, poising on their levelled rifles hardly a hundred yards away. I turned again and ran back towards the engine, the two Boers firing as I ran between the metals. Their bullets, sucking to right and left, seemed to miss only by inches. We were in a small cutting with banks about six feet high on either side. I flung myself against the bank of the cutting. It gave no cover. Another glance at the two figures; one was now kneeling to aim. Movement seemed the only chance. Again I darted forward: again two soft kisses sucked in the air; but nothing struck me. This could not endure. I must get out of the cutting-that damnable corridor. I jigged to the left, and scrambled up the bank. The earth sprang up beside me. I got through the wire fence unhurt. Outside the cutting was a tiny depression. I crouched in this, struggling to get my breath again.

Fifty yards away was a small platelayer’s cabin of masonry; there was cover there. About 200 yards away was the rocky gorge of the Blue Krantz River; there was plenty of cover there. I determined to make a dash for the river. I rose to my feet. Suddenly on the other side of the railway, separated from me by the rails and two uncut wire fences I saw a horseman galloping furiously, a tall dark figure, holding his rifle in his right hand. He pulled up his horse almost in its own length and shaking the rifle at me shouted a loud command. We were forty yards apart. That morning I had taken with me, Correspondent-status notwithstanding, my Mauser pistol. I thought I could kill this man, and after the treatment I had received I earnestly desired to do so. I put my hand to my belt, the pistol was not there. When engaged in clearing the line, getting in and out of the engine, etc, I had taken it off. It came safely home on the engine. I have it now! But at this moment I was quite unarmed. Meanwhile, I suppose in about the time this takes to tell, the Boer horseman, still seated on his horse, had covered me with his rifle. The animal stood stock still, so did he, and so did I. I looked towards the river, I looked towards the platelayer’s hut. The Boer continued to look along his sights. I thought there was absolutely no chance of escape, if he fired he would surely hit me, so I held up my hands and surrendered myself a prisoner of war.’

The story of Churchill’s subsequent escape from captivity six weeks later is well documented and Captain (later General Sir) Aylmer Haldane records in his autobiography, A Soldier’s Saga, how even before his escape, Churchill had recognised the significance his part in this action might have on his future career, telling him that ‘what had taken place [at Chieveley], though it had caused the temporary loss of his post as war correspondent, would help considerably in opening the door for him to enter the House of Commons...’

By way of a postscript in his book, My Early Life, Churchill states in relation to his promise to see to it that the gallant railwaymen were rewarded for their bravery:

‘It was more than ten years before I was able to make good my promise... When in 1910 I was Home Secretary, it was my duty to advise the King upon the awards of the Albert Medal. I therefore revived the old records, communicated with the Governor of Natal and the railway company, and ultimately both the driver and his fireman received the highest reward for gallantry open to civilians.”