On the lawn below the Chapel on the Red sandstone Memorial to OSs who died in the Boer War is the name of Robert James Thomas Digby-Jones VC. He was killed at the siege of Ladysmith, and on a recent trip to South Africa I tracked down his grave. Perhaps OSs would be like to know about a less-well-known piece of history relating to Sedbergh’s first VC.
Robert Digby-Jones was born in Edinburgh in 1876 and was at Sedbergh from 1890 to 1893 where he had a successful school career on the academic as well as on the sporting front. The following year he entered the Royal Military Academy Woolwich and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1896.
At the start of the war, in October 1899, Boer forces swiftly entered the British colony of Natal, encircling the small, but important, railway junction of Ladysmith and proceeded to bombard the town with artillery. On the south side of Ladysmith rises flat-topped Waggon Hill which formed an important part of the British defences. The Boers realised they had to capture Waggon Hill, both to dominate the town with their guns as well as to create a barrier against the relieving British army, under General Buller, coming up from the south.
On the night of 5/6 January 1900 Lieutenant Digby-Jones was on Waggon Hill in command of a working party of sappers and soldiers preparing a gun emplacement, when the Boers attacked in force at several points along the hill with the intention of surprising and over-running the British defences. Digby-Jones was not part of the defence of the hill but happened to be working there that night. Confused fighting took place across Wagon Hill the following day, and while leading a charge against enemy positions Digby-Jones was shot through the throat and killed. He was buried where he fell and was later re-interred in Ladysmith Cemetery. He was 23.
An interesting footnote is that Digby-Jones was among the first to be awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. At the time of his death the VC could only be awarded to survivors. However Edward VII, on his coronation in 1902, directed that the VCs’ recommended for Digby-Jones and others should be awarded after all.
The photographs show his grave in Ladysmith cemetery and his name on the memorial to all those who died in the siege.
A final note for those who enjoy poetry. Henry Newbolt of Clifton College, the author of the well-known “Vitai Lampada” wrote a poem “April on Waggon Hill” about the fighting later that day. The poem refers to a suicidal bayonet charge by the Devonshire Regiment across open flat grassland, which succeeded in dislodging the Boers dug in along the rim of the hill. However, there are no poet’s words commemorating Robert Digby-Jones.
Peter Weeks (P64-68)