My Dad's uncle (his mother's brother) Hugh was born on 28th July 1882 and his early childhood began in a large house called The Mount in Sparepenny Lane, Farningham, Kent, with his older brother Alick (who I wrote about in week 2) and younger sister Marjorie (week 44). It was an affluent family with 5 servants. Their comfortable life must have changed dramatically when his father, William Cole Benson, left the family home around the time his sister was born in 1884 and emigrated to South Africa.
There is evidence that Hugh attended St Paul's School and that he left prematurely in the spring of 1898 and went to South Africa. It can hardly have been a coincidence that his father died in Camperdown, Natal on 3rd March 1898. My guess is that he either went to South Africa to see his dying father or to attend his funeral.
Whether it was or wasn't his intention when leaving Blighty to remain in South Africa isn't known but very soon after arriving Hugh signed up to serve in the South African Army with The Natal Carbineers, an infantry division.
Hugh started the War in the 1st Mounted Rifles of the Natal Carbineers as a Sergeant (#141712 see service record from Boer War) and was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant on 1st September 1916. He was at some stage promoted to Acting Captain and then the Acting was crossed off making him a substantive Captain. He was in theatre 5A of the war from October 1914 which included East Africa, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia. I don't have his WW1 service record so don't have any more details other than that his medals consisted of :
- the Victory Medal
- the British War Medal
- the 1915 Star which was awarded by the Natal Carbineers
His WW1 medal card has an address of "Chevy Chase, Underberg, Natal".
The service records of The Natal Carbineers have the following entry :
BENSON Hugh. Sergeant Farrier 555
Served Siege of Ladysmith 29/9/1899 to 31/05/1902.
141712 - Served in German South West Africa 1914-1915.
Off strength to Royal Field Artillery - Capt.
As a farrier, he would have been dealing with the trimming and fitting of the shoes to Army horses. This combined traditional blacksmith’s skills with some veterinarian knowledge about the physiology and care of horses’ feet. One of a farriers other tasks was the humane despatch of wounded and sick horses.
He must have decided to stay as Uncle Tony's unpublished autobiography recalls Hugh's mother knitted and sent "grey woollen socks ...... to Hugh who had stayed in South Africa after the Boer War".
As mentioned previously, family memories were pretty definite that Hugh died while fighting with the South African forces at Tobruk. However, early on in my research I found a dedication to him on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site showing him being remembered on the Berlin 1939-45 War Cemetery memorial (just outside Berlin) which states he died on 12th July 1944 - two years later than had been thought. It also showed that, unbeknown to his family:
- he had the rank of Corporal
- he was serving with the Royal Durban Light Infantry
- he had been awarded an OBE
- and he was married !
I then wrote to The Department of Defence in Pretoria who sent me a detailed copy of his service record. It seems he lied about his age when signing up in 1940 by saying he was born in 1895 rather than 1882. He would have been 57 at the outbreak of WW2. Trying to pass himself off as being 13 years younger than he actually was must have been difficult as, unsurprisingly, his hair is described on the records as being “grey”.
The records show that he re-enlisted in 1940 as a Private and there is nothing to suggest he was anything other than a Private.
Another shock revelation nobody was aware of was that his service records revealed he was "missing believed POW 20th June 1942" and that he had subsequently died two years later whilst still a POW on 12th July 1944. On 21st June 1942 35,000 allied troops surrendered to Rommel including the entire 2nd infantry division of the 1st batallion of the RDLI which was fighting as part of the British 8th Army. I subsequently discovered that the POW camp was Stalag 4b which was situated in the Muhlberg area south of Berlin between the small villages of Burxdorf and Neuburzdorf, 8 km east of Muhlberg. It was the largest POW camp in Germany and held up to 16,000 POW'S. It was severely overcrowded with a lack of beds, clothing and food. There is nothing to say why Hugh died but most of the deaths in the camp were from tuberculosis and typhus. Those that died were initially buried in nearby Neuburzdorf cemetary.
The service record says that Hugh was a farmer and that he had served for 4 years as a RFA Captain, which must refer to his WW1 experience. He gave a current address in Durban which was the City where it says he married a 'Mary H.' with an address of 28 Cluny Gardens in Edinburgh - I have not been able to trace any more details about her. Why was she living in Scotland and not in South Africa with her husband ? His next of kin is shown as G.K.Colville from Castledene, Underberg in Natal.
I subsequently tried to find out when and why Hugh received the OBE. Details were eventually found in the National Archives of South Africa with a small citation confirming that it was awarded in 1921, presumably for his service in the Army :
The Golden Nugget
Just by chance, I was invited to a hospitality evening to enjoy a 20 : 20 cricket match at The Oval a few years ago and got talking to someone, as you do, about the fact I had a British relative who had seemingly emigrated to South Africa and fought with South African forces in WW2. He subsequently, via his father, put me in touch with a couple of military historians in South Africa. They were able to substantially add skin to the bones of what we knew about Hugh.
Chevy Chase (now Benson) Farm
I was told that there is today a small farm near Coleford, just outside Underberg, called BENSON. Apparently Hugh had been in partnership with Geoffrey Colville (next of kin on service record) in the 1920's farming pedigree Hereford Cattle at Chevy Chase Farm on Drakensberg Gardens Road which is in the Underberg area near Pietermaritzburg, close to the picturesque Drakensberg Mountains. Apparently the two of them had a pack of dogs and used to hunt jackals and otters. Geoffrey Colville was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Dorset Yeomanry, so they were both service men.
Uncle Tony's unpublished autobiography recalls "this Uncle Hugh, whom I met only once, was a glamorized creature by virtue of his foreignness, but he was a poor correspondent who wrote home only two or three times a year and his brief letters, as I recall, contained little beyond the intelligence that the mealie crop had failed because of drought or, less frequently, that the mealie crop had failed because of floods." The South Africans called maize ... "mealie" so they must have farmed maize as well as keep a heard of cattle.
Flash (Regimental Magazine)
It is unusual to find minute detail about an ancestors character especially when they have died in a prisoner of war camp and any service records which may have existed would have been destroyed in a serious fire which gutted some areas of the Durban Light Infantry head quarters. One of the South African historians sent me this remarkable photograph and transcript from an article by Tubby Goldman in the July 1967 issue of "Flash", the regimental magazine of the RDLI. It starts by identifying a number of the soldiers attending the funeral in Stalag 4b but goes on to say :
Hugh Benson, a Major, M.C. in the 1914 - 1918 war, was farming in the Underberg area at the outbreak of the Second World War. He immediately gave up his favourite sport and pastime, otter hunting with a pack of home grown dogs, and set out for Durban, where he promptly got himself tied up with the 1st RDLI.
Many efforts were made to persuade this old sweat to accept rank of some kind but he fought off all onslaughts on his privateship. Eventually however, he agreed to become a lance-jack in the 'I' Section.
Hugh, a fairly quiet man, never really had much to say for himself - certainly he rarely spoke of his First World War experiences. He was fantastically fit for his age, a real hog for hard work and fatigues. He was generous to a fault, kindly, and often took guard duties and unpleasant chores away from younger chaps in the Regiment. He was renowned as a marcher of routes and could walk most men off their collective feet.
It was Pop's lot to be attached to the composite Battalion (Blake Group) which went into the sack at Tobruk and from there he was drafted, together with so many other RDLI chaps, to Stalag 4 B where eventually he died.
How sad it is that so fine a man, so good a soldier as Hugh Benson, should have been buried so far from home, and yet how fitting that he, with war and army in his very blood, should have been buried with military honours in the presence of both enemy and friend. Yes, indeed, Pop Benson was a soldier of whom we of the DLI can and must remember with pride."
That's a remarkable article and epitaph to my great uncle and briefly brings him back to life. Whether or not the bit about him having been a Major and recipient of the Military Cross in WW1 is doubtful but I suppose, if you are trying to convince everyone you are in your 40's when in fact you are in your 60's, it isn't too far fetched !
All his war medals were sent to his wife so nobody in the family has ever seen them. I shall continue to search for her and keep my eye on E-bay for the medals to come on the market.
There is a Memorial in the RDLI Moth Garden of Remembrance in Underberg. It is difficult to read but the first named on the memorial is "L/Cpl H. Benson, OBE, RDLI". Where did "Lance Corporal" come from ?
Hugh seems to have been a man of many ranks although it seems he would have been happier to have remained as a Private, one of the lads. Whatever his rank he was a hero and a leader of men who served his country and died surrounded by his comrades thousands of miles from home.