My local Boer War hero

This is a biographical tribute to Harry Crandon, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for rescuing a comrade under heavy enemy fire during the Boer War in 1901. After his military career he settled in my home town and is buried here. With a summary of the war to put the action in perspective and a brief account of how Victoria Cross was established.

Tension between the two independent Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State and British interests in South Africa had been building for years, until diplomacy finally broke down. In early October 1899, the 1st Army Corps was mobilized in England. On October 11, 1899, Boer commando units invaded British territory; besieging the garrison towns of Kimberley and Mafeking in the Cape Colony, and Ladysmith in Natal.

Fighting on home soil in mounted commando units, in some cases made up of three generations of the same family, the Boers were a formidable foe. Armed with superior firearms and smokeless ammunition, and camouflaged in the drab colors of their coarse peasant clothing, the skilled Boer marksmen knew how to conceal themselves in the rocky terrain and fire from long ranges, while the British advanced like a parade ground across the open veldt. Then, with excellent horsemanship, leave the scene before the British can react effectively.

British relief forces made a two-pronged advance during which they suffered three severe setbacks in mid-December, at Magersfontein and Stormberg in the Cape, and at Colenso in Natal, which became known as ‘Black Week’. As the Natal Field Force fought north, they suffered their worst defeat of the campaign at the notorious Battle of Spion Kop on 24 February 1900, before reaching Ladysmith four days later. Kimberley, under Cecil Rhodes, was retaken at about the same time, and the relief from Mafeking on 17 May 1900, which had been under the leadership of Robert Baden-Powell, who later established the world-famous Boy Scout movement, sparked a frenzy of imperial hysteria in Britain.

Eventually Lord Roberts, whose son had been killed in action while winning a posthumous Victoria Cross at Colenso, took command. Their experience turned the tide and British forces entered the Boer capital of Pretoria on 5 June 1900. The British then launched a campaign, mainly in the eastern Transvaal, to track down the Boer commanders, while the Boers adopted guerrilla tactics, attacking isolated outposts, supply convoys and patrols.

In October 1900, Herbert Kitchener took command and countered the Boer strategy by dividing the country into fenced off sections, protected by pillboxes. With his ‘Scorched Earth’ policy, the farms of hostile Boers were burned to lessen their chances of refuge. Their families were placed in secure compounds, which became notoriously known as concentration camps, where the mortality rate was high. Not surprisingly, the Boers began to lose heart, but sporadic fighting by the “bitters” continued to keep British troops on their toes. Hostilities finally officially ended when a peace treaty was signed at Lord Kitchener’s dining room table at Vereeniging, on 31 May 1902.

A young Liberal MP named David Lloyd George made a name for himself by speaking out against the war, and the daring exploits of a young reporter named Winston Churchill were making him “quite famous.” Seventy-eight Victoria Crosses were awarded for the campaign, one of them being Harry Crandon.

Henry George Crandon was born on February 12, 1874 in Wells in Somerset, England, the son of William Crandon and his wife Helen (formerly Hewlett).

He entered the 18th Hussars in 1893 and saw service in India from 1894 to 1898, when he went to South Africa. He was stationed with the British garrison at Ladysmith when the Boer War began, and was present in the defense of the town until relieved by General Buller’s Natal Field Force on 27 February 1900.

British forces captured Pretoria on June 5, 1900, and on July 4, 1901, Private Crandon was part of a British patrol advancing through hostile country at Springbok-Laagt, east of Pretoria. He was acting as a forward scout with a partner when a Boer commando unit totaling 40 rifles opened devastating fire on them at a range of 100 yards. He and his comrade, Private Berry, began to fall back to report the incident to the unit, but Private Berry was hit in the hand and shoulder, and his horse was injured as it fell to the ground. Private Crandon rode back to help, and with enemy bullets raining down on him, dismounted, helped the wounded man into his own saddle, and led them on foot for about 1000 yards until they were out of range. He returned defensive fire until the main body arrived to help them.

Private Crandon’s award of the Victoria Cross was announced in the London Gazette on 18 October 1901 and he was awarded Lord Kitchener’s Medal in Pretoria on 8 June 1902. For his service in South Africa he was also awarded the Queen’s Medal with five clasps.

On discharge, he settled at Swinton, near Manchester, now part of the city of Salford, and obtained employment on the estate of Sir Lees Knowles. He was a member of the Honor Guard when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited Salford in 1905, being presented to them in the royal carriage when they unveiled the Boer War memorial next to the Royal Salford Hospital. Shortly after this he immigrated to the United States.

When the Great War began he returned to the colors and enlisted with his old regiment in South Africa in October 1914. He was wounded in the left foot during the first battle of Ypres on May 13, 1915, and upon recovery served two years in the Balkans, Thessaloniki, Egypt and Palestine.

On his discharge in 1919 he returned to settle in Swinton. He attended the VC meeting held on November 9, 1929, hosted by the Prince of Wales in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords. On June 8, 1946 he was one of 150 VC invited to a special dinner at the Dorchester Hotel. In November 1948 he saluted the drumhead of the Royal British Legion at the Swinton Cenotaph. However, a short time later he was the victim of a traffic accident in which he suffered two broken legs and injuries to his face that took him to the hospital for several months.

Harry Crandon died at his home, 39 Kingsley Road, Swinton, on 2 January 1953, aged 71, and was buried in the Church of England section of Swinton Cemetery. His medals are with the 13/18 Hussars (now the Light Dragoons). There is a headstone on his grave and the Royal British Legion Housing Association have named Crandon Court in Pendlebury after him.

The Victoria Cross is awarded for: ‘Conspicuous bravery and devotion to country in the presence of the enemy’. It was instituted by royal order of Queen Victoria towards the end of the Crimean War in 1856, and the men who fought in that campaign became the first to receive it.

Queen Victoria took a keen interest in the award and the medal’s design, and the Duke of Newcastle had some interest in creating the award in his capacity as Secretary of State for War. Prince Albert suggests that it should be named after Victoria, and the original motto should have been “For the Brave”, but Victoria was of the opinion that this would lead to the inference that only those who bear the cross are considered brave, and decided that “For Courage” would be more appropriate. The design was not to be particularly ornate and not of high metallic value. All medals have been cast by Hancock’s in London, using bronze from the gun helmetbels that Russian forces had captured from the Chinese and the British had captured from the Russians at Sevastopol. Rank, long service, or injury was to have no special influence on who qualified for the award. The first recipient announcements were published in the London Gazette on February 24, 1857. The investiture took place in Hyde Park, London, on June 26, 1857, when 62 Crimean veterans received the medal from the Queen herself. He originally had an annual pension of £10, which became £100 in 1959 and was raised to £1,000 in 1995.

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