Billingborough farmer’s war letters in book

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Just over a hundred years ago the people of Bourne and district presented a silver snuffbox to a Billingborough farmer just returned from the Boer War.

Herbert Stennett had given up his peaceful existence on the farm to serve, aged 18, with his brother Arthur when in 1900 the British Army needed more men during the second Anglo-Boer war fought on the Veldt of South Africa.

Herbert sent regular letters home describing the extraordinary sights and experiences he had far from the farm, such as his regiment being ambushed by the Boars, when an officer and 16 men were killed, about 100 men were taken prison, and Herbert had to run for his life.

“It was a dreadful day, with bullets and shells flying all around,” Herbert wrote. “I thought every moment would be my last.”

Those extraordinary letters were copied by Herbert’s sister into an exercise book and have become the basis of a book by Herbert’s grandson, Alan Stennett, entitled Lincolnshire Lads on the Veldt.

“The British Army needed more soldiers and the only people they had available who were trained were the County Volunteers,” explains Alan, who also grew up in Billinborough. “The County Volunteers were farmers’ sons, business people, probably quite middle-class in a sense because they were the ones with the time under normal circumstances to go and do rifle training, marching and those kinds of things. They would have been there to put down civilian unrest and so on in the county. That was their normal role, and they weren’t supposed to go overseas, so the Army had to ask for volunteers from among them.”

Alan’s grandfather and his brother were part of the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment, an experience that Alan says his grandfather would talk about occasionally.

Alan – an author of a number of books about Lincolnshire – was aware of the existence of the letters from both Herbert and his brother. However, when he came across reports in a local newspaper from another soldier, Private David Wilkie, who was in the same group of volunteers, Alan thought there was an opportunity to make something more of them.

He said: “When I found the newspaper reports, written by a man in the same small unit, I realised they could be put together to show what it was like to take part in one of the last Imperial wars. In their letters and reports they wrote about the state of their boots, the bad food, the big rivers they had to cross and the reception they got from the locals in unfriendly areas.

“The letters are a description of life on the Veldt and the South African countryside. Here was a lad brought up on the edge of the Fens talking about amazing mountains he saw, the incredible heat and cold and the amazing contrasts to his normal life.”

All three men were at the fall of Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal republic, where Herbert gleefully wrote about finding a tin of Colman’s mustard to improve their rations. Meanwhile, Arthur was telling his family that they were, “very shabby and dirty, our clothes are torn and poor old Bert is out at the knees.”

Alan and his wife Sue followed the brothers’ route across South Africa and Alan says: “I found it strange to stand in a place where a stray bullet over a century ago might have meant that I would never have been born, but it gave me a new view of my grandfather.

“Herbert was out there with the Lincolnshire Regiment for a year and then he moved over to a unit with Nesbitt’s Horse, the mounted infantry, and from there to intelligence. He did talk about his time in South Africa but it didn’t seem real until I went to those same places. I just wish I had asked him more about it when I had the chance.”

Herbert returned to the family farm where he stayed until he went bankrupt in 1937, a particularly bad time for farmers, something Alan has written about in his books on farming in Lincolnshire. He has also written about the lost railways of Lincolnshire, the Lincolnshire dialect and a book on the Lincolnshire Fens, illustrated by Moulton artist Mo Teeuw, that was published in 2010.

Lincolnshire Lads on the Veldt by Alan Stennett is published by the author at £11.99 and copies are available from Bookmark in The Crescent, Spalding, along with his other titles. Alternatively, write to Woodhall Junction, Kirkstead Bridge, Woodhall Spa LN10 6QX, adding £1.50 for post and packing.