A button was lost near Bathurst in the Eastern Cape. Not any old button, but a rounded brass button that had once shone brilliantly on the tunic of a soldier. How it was lost will remain a mystery. So many things go missing when armed forces are constantly on the move during a war: buttons, buckles, stirrups, cap badges and so on.

Over a hundred and twenty years later the button was found by Theo van der Walt, who has developed an eye for such treasures from the past.

He looked closely at the embossed design on the button and made out the figure of a horseman and the number five. Could it have come from the Light Dragoons, he speculated, and turned to members of the Eastern Cape branch of the South African Military History Society for assistance in identifying the origin of the button, made from gilded brass.

Everyone loves a mystery.

True to form, within twenty minutes the Chairman had matched the emblem to a cap badge and sent a link to a Wikipedia article that suggested a connection with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. What a promising lead!

Meanwhile, others were taking an even closer look at the photograph posted on the WhatsApp group. Was the clearly visible VOOAN a significant abbreviation, Nick Cowley wondered? After all, some units were called ‘Victoria’s Own’, but they usually had the word ‘Queen’ in front. Further research was required.

About four hours later, Nick reported that VOOAN is the word for the Irish province of Munster. Had this mounted soldier been part of a unit from Munster that had served in the area during one of the Frontier Wars?

Interest had been piqued and the collective search continued.

The following day brought to light that the 5th Regiment of Foot’s regimental badge pointed to the horseman on the button being St. George slaying the dragon. It is interesting to note that the regiment of the Northumberland Fusiliers was permitted to use the legendary figure of St George killing a dragon in uniform regulations dating back as far as 1747.

Three hours later, the mystery had been solved: the button had indeed come from a member of the 5th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The letters VOOAN had been an interesting red herring that was netted and put to rest with the discovery that the Latin motto of this regiment is QUO FATA VOCANT (Wherever the Fates call). The second O was actually a C and the letters (viewed only from the photograph) were clearly a part of that motto – the other letters were not easily decipherable. The button has a raised moulded band in the shape of a garter, bearing this motto. These buttons are described on eBay as ‘rare’.

The 5th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers had been involved in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901). This infantry unit was raised in 1674 and subsequently served in many British Army campaigns during its long history. While there might not have been much military action in this area during that war, a British concentration camp had been set up in nearby Port Alfred.

Note: Photographs supplied by Theo van der Walt.



A few correspondents recently expressed surprise at my mention of using my cell phone camera as a handy magnifying glass. This reminded me of a game I used to play with my eldest grandchildren when they were very young: taking very close-up photographs of very ordinary things and have them guess both what they were and where they were. Then I scrolled back on my phone to find these ones I had taken for fun:

A small pearly button.

A crossword waiting to be filled in.

The crimped end of a tube of hand cream.

The face of my wristwatch, which is a lot more scratched than I realize!