|Gunner 717 John Highfield 5th Battery 25th Brigade - Royal Artillery
The campaign to Abyssinia 1868
When King Theodore of Ethiopia captured and held prisoner a number of Europeans as well as numerous captives of his own
people, the British Government sent representatives to try and negotiate their release. Some Europeans were released but
soon afterwards were captured again and returned to imprisonment.
It was decided that an expedition must be organised to try and force the release of these captives. There was never any
intention to annexe territory during the course of the campaign.
The advance portion of the expeditionary force to Abyssinia left Bombay in October 1867. The entire force leaving India
consisted of 12,000 effectives, of which 4,000 of the men were Europeans. These included four regiments of Infantry,
consisting of 1st Battalion 4th Regiment, the 26th, 33rd and 45th Regiments, two squadrons of cavalry from the 3rd Dragoon
Guards and five batteries of Artillery. These were the C-E, R.H.A, G14 Royal Artillery, 3-21 Royal Artillery, 5-21 Royal
Artillery and 5-25 Royal Artillery. Nine regiments of Native Infantry, four regiments of Native cavalry, six companies of
Sappers, pioneers and one company of Native Artillery made up the total. Bombay provided the largest portion of the force
while Bengal contributed two regiments of light cavalry, one regiment of pioneers, three companies of Sappers and the 5th
Battery of the 25th Brigade Royal Artillery from Calcutta. Amongst the gunners from this battery was 717 John Highfield,
who was in number 5 company. He had enlisted on the 14th June 1861 and was now aged 28.
|Embarking Elephants at |
Bombay for Abyssinia
The advance brigade arrived at Aden and was ordered to fill up with as much water as possible. From here they were to
proceed to Ansley Bay, 20 miles south of Massowah, where they landed stores and made three piers for the main body of
men to disembark. Inadequate accommodation and a lack of water stopped the main body of troops being sent for several
months. Early in December, the advance guard moved up to the plateau and the remainder followed soon they landed. John
Highfield’s battery landed at Zoolla on the 6th February 1868. This camp consisted of about 50 tents and marquees as well
as hundreds of baggage animals, including 3,000 horses, 16,000 mules 5,000 bullocks, 8,000 camels and 44 elephants. The
move up to the plateau was not without difficulties as many of the baggage animals had died shortly after being landed due
to neglect by their handlers and shortage of water for them.
By the 5th March 1868, the troops had assembled and started to move to Magdala, some 380 miles away. They were divided
into two divisions and the 5th/25th Royal Artillery composed part of the second division and would be based initially at the
garrison village of Antalo. A detachment of gunners formed part of the Second Brigade First Division and accompanied two
eight inch mortars, which were to be carried by the elephants brought especially from India.
On the 1st April the headquarters of the 1st Division, under the command of Major General Sir Charles Staveley and the
Second Brigade under Brigadier General Wilbey were based at Gahoo.
Amongst these troops was the detachment of 5/25th gunners who had been attached to the mortars and it consisted of just
35 men. It had already been planned before the troops left India that this detachment would be made and the battery had
received a draft of extra men to allow for this action.
|Elephants at the river |
Tacazzee in Abyssinia
Each mortar and its bed were transported by two Elephants. The mortar Elephant carried the mortar which weighed 924lb,
the travelling bed of 168lb, the cradle of 252lb and the pads weighing 500lb. This totalled 1,844lb. The bed Elephant
carried the iron bed of 840lb, the travelling bed of 168lb, the cradle of 252lb and the pads of 500lb. This totalled
1,760lb. The powder was carried by another Elephant and the shells by mules, four shells per mule.
The remaining 90 men of the 5th/25th Royal Artillery commanded by Major Bogle had been ordered to join the Antalo station
and were marching there together with six 7lb brass rifled mountain guns. A further detachment from the battery was to be
left behind at Suru. These men were destined not to take part in the advance to Magdala, but still performed outstanding service.
|Royal Artillery in |
Abyssinia with 7 lb
guns mounted on
The Conditions on the line of march were terrible. They had to cross five high mountain ranges and were badly off for food.
The men were lucky if they could obtain biscuit and tea. In a letter home, an officer described the conditions:-
“We are living in the roughest fashion; we have no sugar, no milk, no butter, no flour, no bread, no liquor of any kind – nothing
much but water. We eat biscuits, which are like dog biscuits broken up into hard bits, a labour to masticate and tough beef
killed just before being taken”
When the British force reached the Dalanta plateau on the 7th April, they were only about 4,000 strong due to numerous
detachments being left to guard the lines of communication. From here the ground dropped 4,000 feet to the Bachelon
river, with the fortress of Magdala ahead and flanked by the Fala and Selassi peaks.
At daybreak on the 10th April the advance guard descended by road into a ravine and then moved to the right, toward the
hills leading to the Arogi plateau.
On the 11th April the army were in front of Magdala and envoys were sent to discover if King Theodore would surrender the
garrison peaceably. Some captives that he was holding were released that evening although a further 350 were slaughtered.
It had been decided to punish the King for his actions and scaling ladders were prepared and powder bags made to destroy
the fortress’s doors. Two brigades were formed up on some rising ground on the Magdala road and the infantry commenced
the ascent of the hill. The Armstrong 12lb battery and the two mortars, with only 27 gunners now fit to operate them, were
moved up into position. The mortars were brought forward by the elephants which caused considerable delay and were
eventually placed at a point behind the Selassee and Fahla ridge, some two and a half miles from their target.
It was intended that they should fire at long range should the enemy offer opposition to the advance of the advancing
column up the hill to Magdala. Twelve guns and four rocket tubes were brought to within 1,300 yards of the gate to
Magdala. Orders were then sent to bring the mortars forward by the Elephants as the incline was too steep for horse
draught. This was found to be impractical due to the nature of the ground. At 3 p.m, after the mortars had fired just
11 rounds, it was found that their position was not sufficiently advanced for their fire to produce any decided effect.
They ceased firing just before the second brigade was ordered to advance.
Entry had to be forced as the artillery had failed to hit the gates and then the garrison quickly surrendered.
On the 15th April the Elephants and the mortar detachment of men from the 5th/25th commanded by Major James
Hills-Johnes V.C. began their journey back to the coast, and on the 17th April the fortress of Magdala was destroyed
by fire. By the 1st May a total of just 92 men of the 5/25th were considered fit for duty. The sick had been carried
back to Zoulla and from there were placed on board a vessel due to return to England.
At half past seven on the morning of the 18th, the remaining troops marched for the Delanta plain.
On May 15th 1868, 3 officers and 97 men of the battery embarked on the sailing vessel “Irwell” at Zoulla, bound for
Bombay. The following day a further Officer and 1 man from the battery boarded the steamer “Sir Bartle Frere” also
destined for Bombay.
The contribution of the gunners who had remained at Zoulla was praised by Major General Russell on the 3rd June 1868:-
“I cannot speak too highly of the services performed by the 5th Battery 25th Brigade of Royal Artillery under the command
of Major Bogle. This battery was detained at Zoolla, and its men and mules were constantly employed in carrying and
escorting treasure and ammunition from Zoolla to the highlands. In this service they marched nearly 1,000 miles. The
cheerfulness with which Major Bogle, and his Officers and men undertook this duty is deserving of the highest praise”.
Gunner John Highfield received a medal for his services in Abyssinia on the 23rd August 1870
and was issued with it the following day. The medal was sanctioned on the 1st March 1869 and
it was unique, due to the fact that the recipient’s name was embossed on the reverse and
consequently a separate die was required for each medal produced. About 12,000 medals in total
were issued to the Army.
It is now impossible to find out if John Highfield formed part of the small mortar detachment
or remained with the garrison at Zoolla. His service papers are not to be found at the National
Archives and the muster rolls of the Royal Artillery cannot be traced for this campaign.
Researching his family history has also proved to be difficult, although it is likely that he may
have been born at Prescot, Lancashire in 1833.