C/3143 STAFF SERGEANT W.H. BATE Commissariat & Transport Corps
The dated Egypt Medal and Khedive’s Star to this soldier appeared at Dix, Noonan & Webb in July 2003 and immediately attracted my attention. As the medal came with a portrait photograph of the recipient, always a bonus, I took the plunge and had the pleasure of ripping open the postal envelope containing Bate’s legacy a few weeks later. In the interim I had done some research and found an interesting tale.
Staff Sergeant Bate was killed during the Egypt campaign, but not from enemy bullets. Although the Commissariat and Transport Corps saw little battlefield action during the Egypt campaign of 1882 they still suffered 48 fatalities. In addition, the Commissariat & Transport Staff, which provided the commissioned ranks for the Corps, lost one officer and two Conductors. Most of these men died from disease, primarily a cholera epidemic that appeared in Lower Egypt in late 1882, but three of them died during a long-forgotten incident that occurred shortly after the cessation of hostilities.
In the weeks following the action at Tel-el-Kebir the rebellious Egyptian Army was disarmed and disbanded with the country’s warlike stores, etc. being recovered and safeguarded under British care. On the night of 28 September 1882, railroad cars containing artillery shells were being shunted about the main Cairo Terminal when someone noticed smoke issuing from one of the cars. Whilst many bystanders no doubt beat a hasty retreat, a trio of NCO’s of the Commissariat & Transport Corps rushed to the location of the smoke, threw open the doors and discovered a pile of shells smouldering and emitting gouts of noxious fumes and smoke. Ignoring the danger, they frantically began to heave out the burning material, beat out the flames and tried to prevent the fire from spreading. Meanwhile, other troops were organising bucket brigades and ordering nearby locomotive drivers to start shunting adjacent cars to safety; His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, with a detachment of Foot Guards, even assisted in removing threatened munitions from the area. In the midst of this frantic chaos, the smoky gloom was split asunder with an enormous explosion and a deafening clap of thunder as the burning railway car, and its courageous would-be rescuers disappeared in a cloud of smoke and flying debris. Contemporary journals give few details but it doesn’t take much of an imagination to visualise the result of such an explosion on fragile human bodies.[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
The three casualties were S/Sergt. W.H. Bate, killed, 3rd Class S/Sergt. E.H. Sainsbury, killed and 3rd Class S/Sergt. T.J. White, severely wounded, all members of the Unattached Detachment, Commissariat & Transport Corps. White was an old soldier and already had the Army Long Service and Good Conduct Medal while Sainsbury was in possession of the Ashanti Medal for the campaign of 1873-74. The first two names were duly recorded on the Memorial on the West Wall of St. George’s Church in Aldershot and can be seen by visitors today. No doubt there would have been many more casualties if other ammunition had exploded and these men’s sacrifice may have saved countless other lives. As it was, a train carrying invalided men from the 60th Rifles was evacuated just before the rear car was demolished in the
resultant explosion that claimed the Staff Sergeants’ lives.
Sadly, little remains on record of this soldier’s life. No doubt because he was a casualty, S/Sergt. Bate’s service record doesn’t survive in The National Archives at Kew and the Army Service Corps Journal, which would certainly have mentioned the incident surrounding his death, didn’t come into being for another eleven years. The 1881 Census provides some information on his short life and certain deductions can be drawn from this limited information. Bate was born in Devonport, Devon in 1852 and may therefore have been the son of a soldier or sailor. At the time of the Census he was married to Ellen, aged 28, a Scotswoman and they had four children; Bella, aged eight, born in Devonport as well; William Sinclair, aged four, born in Malta; Charles Wilson, aged two, born in Totnes, Devon and Ellen Louisa, aged seven months, recently born in Portsmouth. In 1881 the family was living in Colewort Barracks, Portsmouth ( a few hundred yards from where the writer was born ) long since demolished and now, largely, a staging area for the international ferries.
Bate’s number, C/3143, indicates that he enlisted about 1875, although he may have transferred from another regiment or corps. The prefix C simply meant that he belonged to the Commissariat section of the Corps and could have been a clerk, storeman, butcher, baker or, in fact, any trade that didn’t involve transport.[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
This photograph accompanied Bate’s medals shows a youngish man wearing an Undress, five-button frock, bearing the single chevron of a Lance-Corporal or Second-Corporal, and decorated with a civilian watch chain. His serious facial expression was de rigeur for Victorian portraits but there also appears to be an almost wistful demeanor about him. Perhaps he was troubled by the financial burden of trying to raise an increasingly larger family on an NCO’s salary, or perhaps he simply assumed the mandatory stony face required at the time? We’ll never know of course but it’s interesting to speculate on his personality.
The fate of Bate’s widow and orphans has not been recorded but there would have been little benevolence from the War Office. Many military dependants of the Victorian period were forced into poverty but it can be hoped that Mrs. Bate fared better than most. The Commissariat & Transport Corps only comprised about 2,000 men in total but contained better-educated members than the general rank and file of the Army. All ranks enjoyed a strong family tradition that grew out of a feeling that they were a cut above the rest of the Army. There can be little doubt that the widow of a Senior NCO would have been treated with both sympathy and charity, by her former husband’s peers, particularly in a large garrison town like Portsmouth. The outpouring of patriotism amongst the civilian population also led to a greater appreciation of the Army ( and
Navy’s ) recent sacrifices and one likes to believe that “ something “ would have been down for Mrs. Bate and her four young children. At least the survival of his medals and portrait have allowed his memory to be kept alive when most of his compatriots have become, truly, unknown soldiers.
NOTE; It should be noted that a T/3207 Sergeant W.H. Bates served concurrently with the above S/Sergt. Bate but this was a different man. Sergt. Bate had already served in the Zulu War and earned a South Africa Medal with the clasp 1879 before participating in the 1882 Egypt campaign. He duly received a dated Egypt Medal with clasp Tel-el-Kebir and returned safely to England with No. 12 Company of the Commissariat & Transport Corps in October 1882. He returned to Egypt and the Soudan three years later to add the clasps Suakin 1885 and Tofrek to his medal. An article in the Army Service Corps Journal, April 1912 provides more information on his service at Tofrek.
WO 100/60 Medal rolls held at The National Archives, Kew.Illustrated London News, October 14, 1882, p. 394.The 1881 Census of England.
1879Graves Does he count a one of the Devon-Connection.