Ch 1: From Folkestone to Liverpool

By any reasonable measure my early years in Folkestone should have been amongst the happiest of my life. My parents were hard-working and successful and the comfortable lifestyle that my family enjoyed was a credit to their industry - but there was always something missing. My childhood memories are a little sparse but I do recall that on my thirteenth birthday, my father called me to his study and told me that he now considered me sufficiently mature to take a formal position as an assistant in the family Drapery business. Starting a career in this way was a common route to adulthood for many of my age, so this announcement came as no great surprise. In truth, though, this imposed formalisation of my future at such an early stage of my life filled me with what I can only describe as a mixture of resentment and trepidation. I had no real idea of what I wanted to do but I knew that I was not destined to be a Draper's Assistant. In the event, however, family loyalties, respect for my father and a lack of other options kept me in place for the next three years or so - but this was a place made tenable only because I could escape to the life that I really longed for through a rolling kaleidoscope of pictures that I was able to paint in my mind.
   My pictures grew and took form from my insatiable scouring of the London Illustrated News, a journal delivered to my father each week by courier. He said that this should be read by all established and aspiring businessmen because it covered the world's political, social and domestic issues better than any other. For me, though, it was the stories of heroes and battles and glorious victories; it was the mystery of far-off exotic lands; it was Empire; it was Britain; it was the Army. I had not a shred of doubt that this was where I belonged but, still short of the minimum age for full enlistment, my only other option was to join the ranks of the volunteer reserve and to proudly play the role of soldier.
   It took many family debates, much reasoned argument and a great deal of obstinacy on my part before I eventually wore down my parents' resistance. To say I had their blessing would be something of an exaggeration but, at least, there was no great family rift when I left home for Woolwich Barracks and signed as a gunner in No. 2 Field Battery, Royal Artillery. Just six months later, though, it was cruelly, catastrophically over. What had started as a simple enough training exercise for the day of 26th April 1894 turned dramatically from order to chaos with a wildly spooked horse - a runaway gun carriage - and my leg shattered from ankle to thigh. I have since felt the vicious heat of bullet wounds, the debilitating spasms of dysentery and the shivering ravages of yellow fever. I have known my share of pain - but none as intense as the shattering of my dreams on that fateful day. Over many weeks of recuperation and physiotherapy in the military hospital at Aldershot, the medical staff worked with me and did everything they could to bring me back to full fitness but to no avail. The subsequent Court of Inquiry took only a few miserable minutes to find me unfit for further service and to decree a medical discharge. Finished. Just a year and 47 days after I believed that my future had opened up in front of me, bitter chance had closed the circle and I was once again in Folkestone.
   Despite the tribulations of this sorry year, I still held an unshakeable certainty in the facts that circumstances always change and that a man is the maker of his own destiny. Both of these adages of life were brought into a sharp focus for me as I was woken by the morning sun filtering through the window of my room on 1st May 1895, the day of my 21st birthday. I lay there for some moments, with the dark clouds that had fogged my thoughts for months rapidly clearing to be replaced by a shockingly simple and obvious idea. If I could not serve my country, fight the battles and travel the world as a soldier - then I would walk in the footsteps and write the stories of those who did. It was as though one of my pictures had become a blueprint for action and with this sitting clear and sharp in my mind, it took me less than an hour to dress and walk to Radnor Park where I boarded the train to St Pancras.
    By two o’clock that afternoon I was in the foyer of the Illustrated London News offices and at six, just before the doors were locked for the day, the editor, Clement King Shorter, agreed to see me. I was not at all sure what sort of response I would receive to my announcement that I was seeking a commission as a foreign correspondent. His two subsequent questions, though, were similarly brief and to the point. He wanted to know only whether I was free to travel and whether I could write. My answer of "Yes" to both was followed by an equally straightforward instruction to submit samples of my work for review. And that was that. Interview over. I did not have my commission but, for me - buoyed with my re-discovered confidence, the process was now underway and it was merely a matter of time.
   It was now in my hands and all that I had to do was demonstrate that my writing was up to the standard required by the Illustrated London News. I was reasonably comfortable with the mechanics of putting pen to paper but my first pieces were something of a challenge because I had no idea what to write about. I reasoned, though, that with sixteen full size pages to fill each week, quantity of material would be an editorial factor, so I wrote about everything that, to me, seemed even remotely interesting. Each week my packages to London became bigger and heavier, crammed with my local news reports, social sketches of the notaries, the businessmen and the people of Folkestone and comparative essays of five hundred or so words in which I tried to crystallise opposing views on the political and military matters of the day. Each week I received a formal acknowledgement for my submission but not a word of criticism, encouragement or rejection. I was beginning to wonder whether I should enquire about what the next stage would be - but then the letter arrived. Together with a Safe Passage Passport that I had to sign and have witnessed and a money order for £15 to cover the fare, the instructions were clear. In a somewhat terse, almost shorthand, tone (with which I would soon become familiar), I was told that I had just eleven days to prepare and travel to Liverpool, where I was to report to Elder, Dempster & Co. of 14 Castle Street to confirm my passage on the SS Loanda, sailing for West Africa on 30th November. I was also informed that, apart from the funds for the fare to Cape Coast, I was required to meet all other expenses and that I would receive payment for articles only if they were published. Onerous terms, some might say, thrust unkindly upon a novice correspondent but, even upon reading the letter through for perhaps the fifth or sixth time, such trivialities were of no consequence to me. This was my ticket and I grasped it eagerly.
   The Empire at this time was in a ferment; wars and rumours of wars abounded on all sides. Excitement ran high, and in the midst of the turmoil, the operations in West Africa were high on the agenda of journalists and editors. Newspapers were crammed with reports about the troubles in our African colonies, and it was a relatively simple matter to research the immediate cause of our expedition to Cape Coast and an historic overview of our previous quarrels with the peoples of this exotic place.
   We were bound for the Gold Coast, where a series of wars had been fought between the Ashanti Federation and the British Empire during the turbulent years of the 19th century. Gold had been produced in the region for some 400 years and Europeans had been trading there since the middle of the 15th century, constructing fortified trading posts at strategic locations along the coast. By the 19th century, treaties that we had forged with other countries had reduced the number of European nations possessing permanent trading posts to three: Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark. African power in the region was held by the Ashanti, with its capital at Kumassi in the center of the gold producing region and the tension in the region had been mainly over Ashanti attempts to establish control over the coastal areas. Neighbouring tribes, such as the Fanti came to rely on British protection against Ashanti incursions.
   Unwilling to shoulder the increasing risks and responsibilities, the British Company of Merchants at Cape Coast handed its forts and trading posts to the Crown in 1821, at which time all the British holdings on the Gold Coast were placed under the colonial stewardship of the governor of Sierra Leone. Through the ensuing seven decades, this political intervention gave rise to a predominantly military governance characterised by a continuous round of threats, counter-threats, posturing, skirmishes and battles, interspersed with three more significant conflicts. In 1823, Sir Charles MacCarthy, rejecting Ashanti claims to Fanti areas of the coast led an invading force through the jungle in an effort to defeat the Ashanti in their capital He was defeated and killed by the Ashanti, who kept his skull as a drinking cup. Emboldened by their victory, the Ashanti marched to the coast where they bravely fought superior numbers of British troops in open battle. Ultimately however, riven by bush disease, the Ashanti were subjected to a final attack, wherein the British employed the fearsome Congreve rockets and drove the enemy back behind the Prah River, where they settled a truce with the British in 1831.
   The second war flared up in 1863 When Governor Richard Pine refused to return a runaway slave to the Ashanti. A delegation crossed the river Prah into British territory and burned thirty villages. Pine responded by deploying a small retaliatory force of 7 officers and some 200 men but his request for reinforcements from England was declined and he was forced to withdraw his troops. There were no battle casualties and the end result of this conflict was a stalemate that dragged on until July 1864, with both sides losing more men to malaria and dysentery than to action.
   In 1873, the third war began after the British took possession of the remaining Dutch trading posts along the coast, giving British firms a regional monopoly on the trade between the African tribes and Europe. The Ashanti had long viewed the Dutch as allies, so they invaded the British protectorate along the coast. A British army, 2,500 strong, led by General Wolseley, waged a strong and successful campaign against the Ashanti that led to a brief occupation of Kumassi and a treaty signed at Fomena, ending the war in July 1874.
   In 1888 an attempt was made to restore the Ashanti kingdom by the selection of King Prempeh as the rightful heir to the stool. Some of the states rallied for a time, but the ambition of the young king and his mother to re-establish Kumassi supremacy over the whole of the kingdoms led to a series of inter-tribal wars that lasted for several years, and threw Ashanti into the utmost confusion. In 1891 it was proposed to take the whole territory under the British flag, but no friendly arrangement could be arrived at with Kumassi.
   Sir Brandford Griffith dispatched two ultimatums to Prempeh, but he continued his policy of prevarication and double dealing. A final letter was then delivered to Prempeh by Captain Donald Stewart, the Special Commissioner, on October 7th, 1895 demanding that the King should receive a British resident, who would see the reforms carried out. Prempeh took the letter and said he thanked his “good friend the Governor” for sending it to him but took no further notice, and as the day of grace expired without any response, nothing remained but to enforce our demands.
   To this end, Sir Frances Scott was appointed Commander of an Expeditionary Force, briefed to defeat the Ashanti once and for all and to firmly re-establish Britain’s colonial power in the region. The force was to be some 2000 strong, comprising a special corps of 250 hand-picked troops from different regiments at home, 420 officers and men of the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment, 900 Houssa troops and 400 of the West India Regiment, together with a levy of some 5000 friendly natives to act as carriers and scouts. Logistical preparations were to be conducted with the utmost priority, and embarkation had been ordered at the earliest opportunity.
   My letter from the London Illustrated News assigning me to the Expedition’s press contingent, arrived on November 19th. A week later, I was in Liverpool ...

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