After a first relationship which may or may not have been formalised but produced three children, my great-aunt Ethel married a widower called Thomas Claffey. The date was 1926, the place Tooting in South London. All I knew about this man was his occupation given on the marriage certificate: gas stoker. But something told me there was more to his story, although I had no idea where my searches would take me: a relative I did not know about and a tale of courage in battle.

The first breakthrough came with the discovery of Thomas’s enlistment papers online. The picture they painted was humdrum, to put it mildly. In 1909, giving his occupation as ‘labourer’, he had become a reservist in his native Dublin and been assigned to the catering branch of the Royal Army Medical Corps. They called him up at the outbreak of hostilities and he was sent to France but saw no action, being categorised as Bii, or fit for labour duties overseas: an Irish navvy, even in war.
The next breakthrough came with the discovery that Ethel and Thomas had a daughter called Margaret. Not only that but she was very much alive. I made contact and we spent a very enjoyable day exchanging news about our respective families. Margaret remembered her parents fondly but my interest in the past dislodged some additional memories, among them one of Thomas saying he had served with the Inniskilling Dragoons and fought in South Africa. Checking his enlistment papers I found something missed first time round, a reference to his previous military service which bore out Margaret’s recollection.

Records dating from the Boer War are harder to come by and nothing relating to Thomas was found. But the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons were involved in the conflict and an account of their campaign was published by Lt. Col. Watkins Yardley. Among the adventures it describes is a skirmish which took place in November 1901 around a ridge near Spytfontein. In the confusion of combat Privates Bates and Claffey were brought down by their horses falling and separated from their troop, which had withdrawn. They hid in long grass close to the enemy and managed to shoot two of them. Claffey had the chance to retire but stayed with his comrade, engaging over fifty Boers. Finally Claffey remounted his horse and recaptured Bates’s under heavy fire, the two men making off with bullets flying round their ears.

No medals were awarded for this escapade, the army’s definition of gallantry being stricter than mine. But Margaret was delighted to read an account of her father in action and dug out some photographs, two fragments of him as a young man in uniform and a holiday snapshot including Ethel and Thomas. He cuts a fine figure with his strapping physique, dashing moustache and habit of standing at ease. After so many years the hero of Spytfontein still had a military bearing.