|Private George Henry Eato - Leicestershire Regiment
George Henry Eato was born on the 21st September 1876 at Pinxton, Derbyshire, the second son of William and Elizabeth, who
had married at Newark, Nottinghamshire in 1870. In 1879 the family moved back to Newark where Elizabeth had been born and
where William worked as a labourer.
The families’ next move was to Evington, Leicestershire, where housing and some factories had recently been built. George left
school and served his apprenticeship in the rapidly expanding boot and shoe trade in Leicestershire. When he qualified he worked
as a shoe clicker. This was considered to be an elite trade as he was responsible for cutting the upper parts of the shoe from the
leather. Personal care and skill was essential for this work, in order to obtain the maximum use from a hide. The curious name
originated from the clicking noises which were made when the knife blade was drawn around the pattern.
George Eato applied to join the Leicestershire Militia in August 1894. By joining, he would still retain his current employment but
would attend a number of drills and an annual camp. If called upon, the men of the Militia could be used for home defence. In the
case of war however, Militia men would join the regular army and could be employed overseas.
Subjects which the new recruit could expect to be taught were basic. These included foot drill, sighting and firing a rifle which
was unloaded, volley firing which was again with no ammunition and gymnastic exercises.
The annual camp under canvas was eagerly awaited by the men, who looked upon it as a paid holiday. Live firing then took place
and the climax involved Battalion exercises organised by the commanding officer.
George Eato attested on the 24th August and became number 5364 in the 3rd Battalion, Leicestershire regiment. He was
described as being 5 foot 3 inches tall, weighing 110 lb, with a fresh complexion, grey eyes and light brown hair. His religious
denomination was given as being Wesleyan.
He began his basic drill training but very soon must have considered joining the regular Army. By the 7th October he had
completed 49 days drill and had applied to his commanding officer for permission to join the 1st Battalion, Leicestershire
regiment. The Militia small book confirmed that a militia recruit who joined the regular army after completing at least 42 days
drill, would receive a bounty of 10/-. The necessary permission was obtained and Charles Eato became private 4216 in the 1st
He began his service at Glen Parva barracks, which was in Saffron Lane, South Wigston, Leicester and had opened in 1881.
|Glen Parva Barracks, South Wigston|
The battalion at this time was overseas in the West Indies where it remained until the end of 1895. By July 1896 it had become
the garrison regiment for Cape Town, South Africa and remained there throughout 1897. In October 1898 it had moved to
Pietermaritzburg, and with increasing tension with the Boer population, it was in Ladysmith in August 1899.
October 9th 1899 saw a Boer ultimatum issued to the British Government and two days later war broke out. Early in the morning
of the 12th October Boers began to cross the border into Natal. The 1st Leicestershire regiment had also moved forward and now
formed part of the garrison at Dundee. The town sat in a circular valley entirely surrounded by high hills.
On the 18th October Commandant Erasmus and his men were only seven miles from Dundee. Sir George White, the British
commander in Natal, felt anxious about the garrison forty miles away from Ladysmith at Dundee, and telegraphed General Symons
to fall back at once. General Symons decided that he could remain there with 4,000 men while 14,000 Boers slowly closed in upon
On the 19th October all communication between Dundee and Ladysmith was cut and in the evening the Boers prepared to advance
during the night and be in position to occupy the high hills east of Dundee. At 2.30 A.M. the Boers stumbled upon a picket which
they drove in, and occupied Talana hill.
The morning of the 20th dawned dull and cloudy. Men were seen on the skyline of Talana and very soon an artillery shell burst on
the outskirts of Dundee, the first shot of the war in Natal. British artillery quickly replied and soon silenced the Boer artillery
on the top of the hill. General Symons then prepared his men for an infantry attack to drive the Boers from Talana hill.
The 1st Leicestershire regiment together with the 67th field battery were ordered to protect the camp at Dundee and to prevent
any incursion from the North. The remainder of the advancing infantry soon encountered heavy Boer rifle fire and consolidated.
At 11.30 the artillery ceased firing to allow the infantry to storm the hill. As the infantry moved forward, the Boers retired over
the crest of Talana and the action looked won. Just then British artillery opened up again and cleared the summit of both Boers
and British. It was nearly 1.30 P.M. before the hill was finally reoccupied against light opposition.
General Symons had been mortally wounded during the attack and he was replaced by Brigadier General Yule. On the 21st General
Yule moved his camp to a better position to avoid long range Boer Artillery fire, during which the 1st Leicestershire regiment had
lost Lieutenant William Hannah killed and Lieutenant B. De. A. Weldon, together with one man, wounded.
On the 22nd General Yule resolved to retreat back to Ladysmith. It was estimated that the march would take three days. Thirty
three wagons, escorted by two companies of the 1st Leicester’s returned to the original camp and loaded up with as many stores as
they could. As darkness fell, candles were lit in the tents to give the impression that the men were still present. At 9 P.M. the
force marched out on the Helpmekaar road in silence. They had left behind them their wounded and a great mass of stores were
abandoned to the enemy. The Boers did little to impede the retreat but occupied Dundee soon after the troops had left.
Torrential rain did much to slow the General’s retreat down but after seven hours, the column which was four miles long, had
covered 14 miles. The roads were knee deep in mud and many fast flowing streams had to be crossed. The troops became
exhausted and rested on the afternoon of the 23rd October, having reached Van Tonders pass. The column set off again the
following morning still without the Boers posing an active threat to them, although they could not be far behind. Twelve more miles
were covered and camp was ordered to be set up when General Yule received orders from Sir George White to press onto
Ladysmith without any further delay. The men set off again in total darkness and pouring rain and it was not until dawn the next
day that the men saw Ladysmith across a short expanse of plain. The shattered column of exhausted men finally staggered into
Ladysmith on the morning of the 26th October.
|1st Battalion |
retreating from Talana.
The Boers were not far behind them and were soon observed on the hills around Ladysmith, which was a most unsuitable town to
defend. Supplies of water to the town were cut and Sir George White resolved to attack the encircling Boers before they could
complete a complete siege. He proposed to send two infantry brigades to storm Pepworth hill, where it could be seen that the
Boers were building a gun platform. One of these brigades, commanded by Colonel Grimwood, included the 1st Leicestershire
regiment. Just after midnight on the 30th October, Grimwood’s brigade consisting of six miles of men, guns and horses began to
move off. As dawn broke they were in position for their artillery to open fire but their flank had been turned. The Boer
Artillery fired back and for four hours the troops were subjected to a heavy and sustained shelling and were soon in disarray.
At midday the men were withdrawn before they suffered defeat. The men who had been on the retreat from Dundee seemed to
suffer the most; the Leicester’s were wandering back into town in groups and seeking water and sleep, having suffered 24
casualties. It was not surprising that the day became known as “Mournful Monday”.
Two days later the Boers cut the telegraph line and the railway line to the South, and on the 3rd November they completed the
siege of Ladysmith with its garrison of 13,500 troops.
Ladysmith was divided up into four sections. The Northern salient was section B and was commanded by Major-General F. Howard.
It extended from Gordon Hill to Observation Hill and then continued to King’s post, Ration Post and Rifleman’s post. Within this
area was the inner position of Leicester Post with its garrison of the 1st Leicester’s. The Boers expected the British to realise that
their position was hopeless and ask for terms of surrender. The British in turn realised that the town tied up thousands of Boers
and waited for the relief column to liberate them. General Buller who commanded the relief column estimated that it would take
him just two weeks to travel the 25 miles and relieve the town – It would eventually take him nearly three months.
During the night of the 7/8th December the Leicestershire regiment carried out a raid towards Hyde’s farm but failed to
discover any of the enemy and returned to Ladysmith without a shot being fired.
The siege continued throughout December and into January, with food shortages and health issues increasingly becoming a
problem. Dysentery and Typhoid broke out due to the dirty river water being used for drinking, although efforts were made to
sterilise it. Towards the end, horses were being slaughtered to sustain the men, who were described as being “the flabbiest,
shabbiest and sorriest lot of human beings ever gathered together”
The siege of Ladysmith was finally lifted on the 28th February 1900 and its original garrison was given time to recover from
their ordeal of disease, short rations and a constant artillery bombardment. They were first of all left by the banks of the Tugela
River, where they were joined by reinforcements from England. On March 10th the 1st Leicester’s were re-organised and placed in
the 8th Brigade 4th Division of General Buller’s army of Natal. The men were route marched in order to regain their fitness and
many suffered from Jaundice due to over-eating after a long enforced abstinence. It was nearly two months before they were
considered ready for active service again.
Between the 6th and the 12th June 1900 the Boer’s position at Laing’s Nek was simply outflanked by using a minor pass over the
Drakensberg Mountains to the West. The miles of entrenchments manned by at least 4,500 Boers fell without a shot being fired.
By the 6th August the 4th Division was completed when the 7th Brigade marched into Meerzicht, where the 8th Brigade was
encamped. On August 7th the assembled force moved north and General Buller in his despatch noted that:-
“I selected the 4th division as it is composed entirely of troops which had formed the garrison of Ladysmith, who are now in
excellent health, and I wished to give them an opportunity of active operations”
On the 27th August the last set piece battle of the Boer War took place at Belfast. The position was dominated by a large hill
near a farm called Bergendal. Four Battalions stormed forward while the 1st Leicester’s were kept back in reserve. By attacking
and capturing the strong point, the rest of the position caved in all along the front. The war seemed practically over now.
On the evening of the 5th September the Leicestershire regiment together with the 60th Rifles occupied a hill near Badfontein
which was being shelled by the Boers. A battery of artillery was dragged up the steep slope and positioned to dominate the Boer
guns, which then rapidly withdrew. On the 7th September the town of Lydenburg was occupied and the 1st Leicester’s, together
with the Rifle Brigade were left in the town, under General Howard, as a garrison. On the 20th September the 1st Leicester’s
moved up to Paardeplaats and then rejoined the Division on the 26th.
On October 6th General Buller handed over his command of the Lydenburg district to General Kitchener.
The regiment was involved in drives against the Boer Commandos during the first half of 1901 when the war devolved into a
guerrilla campaign. They then began building a line of block-Houses between the towns of Ermelo and Standerton. The lines would
prevent the Boers from crossing from one region to the next and give them no shelter.
|Corrugated Iron Block-House|
Progress was rapid, with two pre-fabricated corrugated iron block-houses being built and one mile of barbed wire being
laid each day by the men of the Leicester regiment. The Block-Houses on this line were exceptionally close together,
being just 700 yards apart. Once built the 1st Battalion Leicestershire regiment provided the garrison for them. The
Leicester’s could justifiably claim that they were one of only a few regiments that had been present at the outbreak of
the war and were still serving at the end.
After the peace agreement was signed in May 1902 the regiments prepared to leave South Africa. The 1st Battalion
Leicestershire regiment was due to be deployed to Madras, India but the 3rd Battalion was scheduled to return to the
United Kingdom in October. The regular army service papers do not survive for George Eato but it is probable that he
had attested for seven years with the colours and another five in reserve. As his overseas service time had expired, it is
most likely that he returned home to Leicestershire with the 3rd battalion.
He received the Queens South Africa medal for his services in the Boer War. The
medal had four clasps, which were Talana, The defence of Ladysmith, Laing’s Nek
and Belfast. There were 178,000 medals issued in total, with the clasp for Talana
being one of the rarest of the 26 finally issued.
George Eato found employment at North Evington as a capstan-man on the Midland railway. This involved moving wagons and vans
by means of ropes connected to a fixed engine.
In the winter of 1904 he married Emma Barkes in Leicester. Emma had been born in 1878 at Pinxton, the same village where
George had been born and was his cousin. Emma had had an illegitimate child in the winter of 1900 but George was quite prepared
to accept the child as his own. The boy retained his mother’s maiden name as part of his own name. A daughter called Betsy Ann
was born to them after two years of marriage.
George Henry Eato remained in Leicestershire for the rest of his long life. He finally died in the summer of 1971 aged 95 years.