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1900: Cuckfield War Hero welcomed home, describes frontline experiences

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 08 May 1900


There was an ebullition of delight at Haywards Heath and Cuckfleld on Friday. About the middle of the day flags were merrily waving in the breeze from flagstaffs and from the fronts of houses, and hands were busy fixing up such pleasing expressions as “Welcome” and “Welcome Home.” Of course there were not a few eager enquiries as to the meaning of this demonstration, and those who could impart information did so readily, nay joyously.

The neighbourhood had contributed men to fight the nation’s battles in South Africa, and for months past the prayer had gone up on high from the hearts of men, women and little children-

“May victory attend them, and God Himself defend them. And bring them back safely from the war.”

The God of Battles had heard the prayer. He was bringing home to his kith and kin one who had heard the varied sound of balls—humming like bees, whistling sharply, or in a whine like a chord—who had heard the frightful roar of the fusillade, and had played his part in the game of life and death.

That one was Captain Charles Sergison, of the Scots Guards —Cuckfield’s young Squire. The hardships he had to endure and the trying climatic conditions had told upon his constitution, and he was invalided home.

He arrived in England on the Guelph last week, and on it becoming known on Friday that he and his wife, the Hon. Mrs. Sergison, would come to Haywards Heath en route to Ashfold, Handcross, the residence of Mr. Lindsay Smith, it was resolved to let him see that great was the pleasure at his safe return. The train was due at 4:21, and some time before that hour people began to assemble on the west front of the railway station. Members of the A and Companies 2nd V.B. Royal Sussex Regiment, under Sergeant-Instructor James, paraded, and lined the passage from the station to the carriage in waiting for the hero of the hour. The crowd grew in numbers, but the “gentlemen in blue "had no difficulty in controlling it; clusters of humanity took advantage of any nook or corner that would enable them to see the gallant officer, and every window in the vicinity was occupied. All hearts were beating in unison; all were inspired with the feeling of profound sympathy for the sufferings Captain Sergison had endured, and with lofty reverence for his devotion to Queen and country.

On the station to welcome him were Mr. C. H. Waugh. Mr. Fred Golding, Mr. A. H. Chart, Mr, H. Finch, Mr. B. Secker, Mr. F. M. Warriner, Mr. F. H. Beeny, Mr. Wratten, Mr. Ruffell, Mr. Hill, Superintendent Smith, Mr. Lloyd, Mr. H. E. Conrage, etc, etc. When the train steamed into the station everyone was on the tiptoe of expectation. Who was going to get the first glimpse? Again the old saying about two ways proved true. Eyes were strained towards the front port of the train, but no, the expected was not there. A glance at the middle part brought the same result. What thoughts flashed through the mind! “It seems as if he hasn’t turned up” said one, and others began to think so too, until Mr. C. H. Waugh, looking towards the rear of the train, called out “There he is.” Immediately all heads were turned. There was a murmur, and then a rush. Mr. C. H. Waugh was the first to shake hands with the gallant captain, and hearty indeed was the shake. Captain Sergison then shook hands with the Press representatives and with several others.

A crowd gathers at Haywards Heath Railway Station to welcome home Boer War veterans in 1900

With his face —which is now sort of cinnamon-brown colour wreathed in smiles, and accompanied by his wife, who naturally looked very happy, Captain Sergison proceeded to the west side of the station, and just as he reached the top steps from the subway he was met by Mr. T. Bannister, who shook hands with him and congratulated him on his safe return.

On making his appearance before the throng it was soon seen that “Charlie was their darling.” There was a waving of handkerchiefs, clapping of hands, and cheer upon cheer rent the air. Captain Sergison deeply appreciated the exhibition of kindly feeling, that, in his modesty, protested against so much being made of him. He expressed to Sergeant-Instructor James and the Volunteers sentiments of gratitude for their turning out to meet him, and shook hands with several of them. On entering his carriage cheers again greeted him, and as he drove up by way of Boitro Road to Cuckfield he was the recipient of further demonstrations of goodwill. Just past the “Sergison Arms” Mr. Densham waved his hand to the Captain, and youngsters carrying flags followed the carriage and shouted themselves hoarse through “hooraying."

On approaching Cuckfield the many flags from the houses evidenced to the young Squire that the news of his home coming had not failed to reach the inhabitants. In Broad Street, by Little London Lane, the carriage was stopped, a band of merry men came forward, and, notwithstanding the appeals of Captain Sergison not to do so, proceeded to unhorse the vehicle, and amid the greatest enthusiasm drew it into the town, where the crowd was immense. A halt was made at the Talbot Hotel, and friends drew near for a shake of the hand, and to express their delight at the Captain’s return. Among the number were Canon Cooper, Mr. R. Bevan. J.P , the Misses Willett (Scaynes Hill), and many other friends.

The carriage was next drawn past the King's Head Hotel and then back to the High Street, where Captain Sergison thanked those who assembled around him for their enthusiastic greetings. It was, he said, really too kind of the Cuckfield and Haywards Heath people to give him such a reception. The horse was then put into the carriage, and Captain and Mrs. Sergison drove away to Handcross. The crowd, having done their duty, returned to their homes, and Cuckfield was herself again.


Captain Sergison is the soul of kindness. He makes no distinction in class. He chats as genially to those at the bottom of the social ladder as he does to those at the top. He does not hate the representatives of the Press, nor look upon them as the plagues of the earth. If he can give any information that will interest the reading public—and who does not like perusing a newspaper?—he is always ready to oblige, in the bounds of prudence.

Therefore our representative approached the gallant officer upon his South African experiences without the fear that he should have his head bitten off. Captain Sergison felt delighted being in the midst of sylvan surroundings once again—it was such a contrast to the sun-scorched, dusty veldt. Those who imagine that the Boer is only a little lower than the angels would do well to have chat with the Captain—that is if they are eager for the knowledge of one who has seen something of the Boer. His actions, in the Captain’s opinion, stamp him more as a devil than a man.

One of our greatest poets puts it that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.“ From what Captain Sergison says it would seem that there is nothing to equal the fury and hatred that the Boer entertains towards the British, and years and years will elapse before there is an abatement of the malicious feeling.

In the art of war the Boer can taught nothing. He knows all the tricks of the game, and can practice deceit and treachery to further orders. He can burrow like a rabbit, and out of some of the kopjes he had to be extracted “like winkles from a shell." When sniping a Boer marksman is almost sure to bring down his man. so true is his aim. At the Modder River Captain Sergison had a plentiful experience of this sniping, and had not few hairbreadth escapes. His first engagement was at the battle of Belmont, on November 23rd. In reply to a question what a man's feelings were like on coming under fire, Captain Sergison said, at the same time assuming a waggish look and shrugging his shoulders. “You don’t like it. Then you get ‘mad’ and want to ‘go’ for them.’’

Scots Guards in the Anglo Boer War

During the earlier stages of the battle the British had a trying time, but when the Boers turned right about face and bolted it was “as good as fox-hunting” chasing them. One experience in this battle was that while wholly engaged with the Boers in one position the Scots Guards, to their horror, heard drums beating behind them, and found their own division charging upon them and firing into them. The Colonel got a few buglers and some pipers to play to show they were Guardsmen, not Boers. Next day Captain Sergison went to Euslin, where he had a warm experience in an armoured train affair, but fortune smiled upon him, and he got back to Belmont safe and sound. He joined in the advance, but only to be suddenly sent back with the Scots Guards to protect Belmont station, as Boers were found threatening it.

The next day, November 24th, Captain Sergison—who commanded “G” Company, 1st Scots Guards—with his battalion marched five hours, with scarcely a halt, and found the battle of Gras Pan in progress. They had a triumphant fight, and captured many of the enemy. The duty of guarding the prisoners was entrusted to Captain Sergison’s Company. Some of the prisoners had put sticking plaster on imaginary wounds, and fixed Red Cross sleeve bands on their arms. So-called Boer doctors were loaded with revolvers, and “the head doctor lapped up all the brandy sent for the wounded, and had delirium tremens! He was pretty beauty.”

On the 27th the Scots Guards marched away to the north, and on the 28th took part in the Modder River fight. This battle gave Captain Sergison his most terrible experience of war. The heat was suffocating, and the Boer fire was terrific. The most trying part of the business was to be exposed to the awful hail of ballets and not be able to see from whence they came.

The next move was not made till December 10th - the day of the Magerefontein disaster. Lord Methuen's plans for this battle, Captain Sergison affirmed, were admirable, and the disaster to the Highlanders was not due to him at all. It was entirely a bit of bad luck. The night was a terrible one. It was pitch dark, and intensely cold and wet. Captain Sergison was among the artillery escort, with the 75th Field Battery, firing only 1,100 yards off the Boers. The greatest bravery was shown by the artillery men. They served their guns. amid a perfect hail of bullets and shells, until they fired their last shell. The failure of shell ammunition, Captain Sergison considers, greatly contributed to the British disaster.

On the 12th the Guards got orders to retire, much to their sorrow. The retirement wee splendidly carried out, and although they were freely shelled there were no casualties. At the South African “Pirbright" on the Modder they stayed for some time, and all heartily glad when orders came to be up and doing. The relief of Kimberley by General French and the chase of Cronje followed. Captain Sergison got up to Klip Kraal Drift just about the time when operations were settled upon for bringing Cronje to bay. Owing to the capture of the great convoy by the Boers the troops endured great privations. They only had muddy spring water to drink, were without food in camp. They took their rest under shelters made of branches, reeds and waterproofs, which were called “bug hatches.” To overcome the food difficulty the commanding officers bought a couple of bullocks, and the question was how to kill them. It was decided to shoot them, but the bullets simply went through the beasts without killing them. A sort of battle then took place, and what with angry bullocks and the bullets flying about, the scene can better be imagined than described.

Lord Roberts sent over brigade of cavalry, thinking the Boers were attacking. When the British fire had done its deadly work some wag suggested that a clasp should be given for the engagement!

It was owing to the deprivations that bad to endured that Captain Sergison contracted pneumonia. He was sent, with other sick and wounded, to the Modder by way of Jacobsdal, and be declares it was the most awful journey ever experienced. The jolting of the buck waggon and the roughness of everything was most distressing, and increased the agonies of the suffering almost beyond endurance. It was a profound relief to at last reach the hospital train, which was fitted up and arranged with everything that could conduce to the comfort and well-being of the sick and wounded.

After his arrival at the Wynberg Hospital Captain Sergison improved rapidly, and during his homeward voyage he still farther recovered. Referring to the medical officers and hospital staff generally, Captain Sergison said they had shown great bravery and devotion, but more bearers were often wanted to get in the wounded after an engagement.

Those who intend to settle down in South Africa after the war as agriculturists will do well to pay heed to Captain Sergison's statement that he was greatly disappointed in that country, and, further, that he could not see the slightest inducement for any of our troops to settle out there as farmers. The climate is the great drawback—it is horribly hot the daytime and deadly cold at night. Houses seem built to suit the heat rather than the cold, and consequently pneumonia is very prevalent. At Cape Town it was impossible to get butter and cream, and fish had to come out from England. If you wanted your watch mended it had to be sent to London. While at Cape Town, at the Mount Nelson Hotel, Captain Sergison saw Sir Walter Barttelot and the Sussex Volunteers, among whom was the Cuckfield man—Private Bleach. Of course the meeting was a most pleasant affair.

Before our chat concluded Captain Sergison referred to the kindly way the people of Haywards Heath and Cuckfield had received him on Friday, and through our columns he desires to express his sincere thanks, and he wishes it particularly known that he hopes to spend the Summer at Slaugham.

For newspaper report on Boer War homecoming of Haywards Heath soldier Corporal Attree please follow the link

Follow this link for more on Private Bleach's tragic experience in South Africa...

Many thanks to Malcolm Tucker for the excellent photograph of Haywards Heath Station


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