Category Archives: Military

Anzac Day Service 2016 Kilmore War Memorial: Address by Grahame Thom

Last Monday, Kilmore Historical Society member Grahame Thom was the guest speaker at the 2016 Anzac Day Service held at the Kilmore War Memorial, For those who were unable to attend, Grahame’s address is reproduced here.

We are here today 101 years after Australian and New Zealand forces landed at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. About 95 years ago this memorial was built to honour the sacrifice of 29 local men who died during World War One.

I would like to read out their names, but before doing that I need to explain that many local honour boards and memorials have errors, and this memorial is no different. So there are some differences between the names I will now read to you and those listed on two sides of this war memorial.

  • Francis Patrick Anderson born Kilmore, died aged 23 in Jun 1917
  • John Clifford Bowers born Kilmore, died aged 21 in Aug 1916
  • Dominick John Burgess born Woolongong, died aged 45 in Jan 1917
  • Colin Henry Cameron born Hawthorn, died aged 23 in Aug 1915
  • Richard Thomas Cooke born Pyalong, died aged 20 in Nov 1916
  • Samuel Ernest Crane born Kilmore, died aged 35 in Apr 1918
  • Joseph Matthew Crowley born Rutherglen, died aged 26 in Feb 1919
  • Charles William Dau/Dow born Wandong, died aged 32 in Jul 1918
  • Joseph Harold Durkin born Kilmore, died aged 24 in Nov 1917
  • Francis Dwyer/O’Dwyer born Kilmore, died aged 20 in Oct 1917
  • William Nicholson Fischer born Kilmore, died aged 34 in Oct 1917
  • James Joseph Freyne born Kilmore, died aged 20 in May 1917
  • John Hammond born Kilmore died aged 27 in May 1918 Claude
  • Henry Jackson born Sunbury, died aged 29 in Apr 1918
  • Albert Edward Knight born Tantaraboo, died aged 24 in Feb 1917
  • William Leahy DCM born Kilmore died aged 25 in Aug 1918
  • William Laughlin Looney born Campbellfield, died aged 19 in Jan 1917
  • William John Matthew born Warrnambool, died aged 25 in Aug 1915
  • Thomas de Courcey Meade born Kilmore, died aged 22 in Jul 1916
  • Philip Joseph McCahery born Kilmore, died aged 24 in Apr 1918
  • Cornelius Brian McDonald born Maffra, died aged 23 in Oct 1917
  • James Noble Robinson born Kangaroo Flat, died aged 34 in Aug 1916
  • Edward John Rule born Bendigo, died aged 32 in Jul 1916
  • Michael Francis Ryan born Broadmeadows, died aged 35 in Aug 1915
  • William Charles James Stute born Bylands, died aged 27 in Apr 1917
  • Hebert Valentine Shaw born England, died aged 27 in Mar 1917
  • Herbert Thomas Skehan born Kilmore, died age 28 in Sep 1917
  • Charles Wyndham Thomas born Korumburra, died aged 27 in Apr 1916
  • Charles Leslie Wickham born Milltown, died aged 26 in Apr 1917

Lest we forget.

There are two who served on Gallipoli.

Colin Henry Cameron enlisted in Kilmore in September 1914, and joined 8th Light Horse Regiment. He arrived on Gallipoli about 17 May 1915. Soon after being promoted to Squadron Sergeant Major, Colin was killed in action on 7 August 1915. His name is recorded on the Lone Pine Memorial.

Sergeant Michael Francis Ryan also known as Joseph McKinley, enlisted at Murwillumbah, NSW, in December 1914 in the 15th Battalion. He was on Gallipoli by May 1915, then spent time on Lemnos and in Egypt with an “injured ear” before returning to Gallipoli in late July 1915. He was killed in action on 8 August 1915 and his name is recorded on the Lone Pine Memorial.

As we are on the corner of Skehan Place, named after prominent Kilmore resident Patrick Skehan, it is appropriate to say a few words about his son Herbert Thomas Skehan. Herbert was dux of Assumption College in 1909. He worked in Melbourne as a clerk before enlisting in July 1915 in 29th Battalion. He sailed to Egypt then to the western front. On 26 September 1917 the 29th Battalion was part of an attack, later named the Battle of Polygon Wood in Belgium. Herbert died in action on that day.

As could be expected our research to date has revealed two more soldiers who have strong links to Kilmore and who died on active service. Perhaps their names could be inscribed on this memorial.

Thomas Vincent Hunt was the nephew of Thomas Hunt, editor and owner of the Kilmore Free Press for over 60 years. Tom was born in Kilmore in 1869 and aged 43 years he joined the 31st Battalion in July 1915 on its way to the Western Front where he was killed in action in July 1916.

George Francis Lloyd was born in Kilmore in 1895. He enlisted in March 1916 with the 3rd Division Service Corps and was shipped to France. Soon after being promoted to Company Sergeant Major he died at the 1st Australian Casualty Clearance Station on the western front in January 1917.

Well over 250 men and women volunteered for active service during World War One from Kilmore and District. We hope to write profiles on as many as possible.

We will remember them.

The murder at Sutton Veny

By Peter Burness

(Previously published in Kilmore Connections, June 2003)

During the First World War tens of thousands of Australian troops passed through the huge military training camps set up in Britain. Soldiers would move between these camps and the battle front in France and Belgium. The hutted camp at Sutton Veny near Salisbury was one of these, and there, on the night of 27 November 1917, a tragic event began to unfold. An Australian soldier was found dead in suspicious circumstances.

About 11 pm that night, Corporal Verney Asser, an instructor at the camp, went to the sergeant of the guard’s room to report that his colleague with whom he shared a hut had committed suicide. Asser said that he had been woken by a loud shot and looked over to find Corporal Durkin dead in his bed. The victim was lying on his right side with his head bloodied and a rifle by his hand.

The deceased was 24-year-old Joe Durkin from Carlton, Victoria. He had grown up in Kilmore where his Irish-born father was a local tailor; his mother died when he was about ten years old. Durkin, a former railwayman, had been in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for almost two years. He left Melbourne with the 17th reinforcements for the 6th Battalion in April 1916, and was stationed in Egypt before going to England. More recently, he and Asser were light machine-gun instructors with the 2nd Australian Training Battalion and they shared accommodation in the Lewis gun hut.

Two days after the tragedy a coroner’s court was held at the military hospital at Sutton Veny. Corporal Asser was the main witness. He testified that Durkin had been depressed and moody all the fateful day. The jury retired and, after deliberation, returned to the court to announce that it believed that the corporal had committed suicide during a period of temporary insanity.

The matter may have rested there but for another camp instructor, Corporal Mime, coming forward a few days later with information that would quickly re-open the case. From the first Milne had insisted that Durkin was not a man likely to kill himself and clearly he had become concerned about the inquest’s conclusions. He now went on to say that on the night of the shooting Asser had come to his hut three times and had gone into an area where ammunition was stored. Later there had been a shot from Asser and Durkin’s hut next door and a round had actually passed through Mime’s wall and put a hole in his jacket which was at the end of his bed. Initially he had thought it was an accidental discharge and did not want to report it.

Matters that had been ignored in the original investigation now took on a sinister appearance. It was recalled that when Asser had gone to the guard hut he was fully dressed, even wearing his wound puttees and in the hut, where he said he had been asleep, his mattress was still rolled up. No empty cartridge was found in the rifle that killed Durkin; someone had extracted it after firing, and only Asser and Durkin were in the hut. It began to look like murder, and Asser was the obvious suspect.

Investigation of his background revealed further odd facts. Verney Asser claimed to have been born in Ballarat thirty years earlier and to have been employed as a porter before volunteering for the AIF. He may have had previous military training because he was a sergeant in October 1915 when he was accepted to transfer to the permanent forces as an acting staff sergeant-major in the Administrative and Instructional Staff. Two months later he was recorded as having deserted from the army.

Asser next appeared at sea on the troopship Maiwa. When the ship reached Colombo he presented himself as a stowaway, expressing a wish to get to the war and requesting that he be enlisted. He was taken on to Egypt and there was made to contribute to the cost of his voyage. He was held at Zeitoun camp until it was decided that his desertion from the permanent forces would be overlooked, and he rejoined the AIF on 1 March 1916. He became a Member of the Australian Army Service Corps and in due course saw service on the Western Front until February 1917.

There was certainly evidence that Asser and Durkin had been friends. However, Asser revealed his darker side when drunk The two men quarrelled sometimes and witnesses recalled that a few weeks earlier Asser threatened “to get even” with Durkin. Added to this, investigators also discovered that a year earlier Asser had been admitted to hospital in England suffering from “mental derangement”. This was attributed to his alcoholism. It seems that he may have also been jealous of Durkin’s association with a widow in the town. The two men had argued when Durkin found Asser reading his letters from her.

Soldiers are subject to both civil and military law. Because the crime was committed in England it was decided that civil authorities would handle this case. Asser was committed to stand trial at the assizes at Devizes in January 1918 and the Commonwealth agreed to pay the costs of his defence. Extensive evidence was presented and the prosecution clearly established that only Asser and Durkin had been in the hut that evening, and that from the positioning of the fatal wound, and the type of rifle used, Durkin would have been in no position to shoot himself.

Still, Asser seemed comfortable when called into the witness box, answering confidently, and insisting he was innocent. It did him no good: the prosecution’s case was sound, and he was found guilty and condemned to death.

Verney Asser appealed against his sentence on the grounds of insanity. He claimed that he had been in asylums and hospital mental wards, although only his military record, with its reference to “mental derangement”, was produced as evidence of this. The appeal was dismissed and the death penalty confirmed. He was hanged at the old Shepton Mallet Prison on Tuesday morning 5 March 1918. The execution was conducted in secrecy without the customary raising of a black flag or tolling of a bell. Asser died instantaneously and offered no confession of his crime.

Remarkably, the Shepton Mallet Prison would see many more military executions. It was taken over by the American forces during the Second World War, was nicknamed “the glasshouse”, and gained a notorious reputation. Twenty-one US servicemen were hanged and two were shot at Shepton Mallet for crimes of rape and murder.

It is possible that had Asser’s crime occurred in a camp in France, and been handled under Military Law, he may have escaped execution. While military courts’ sentences were often harsh, some death sentences for murder were commuted. Furthermore, in the application of Military Law the official historian, Charles Bean, noted that “it was doubtful whether an Australian soldier even when guilty of murder could receive a death penalty”. It may be that there was more certainty in getting a conviction, and the full penalty, from a civil court. As it was, he became the only Australian soldier executed overseas in the First World War, if one excepts the case of Private Albert Fraser, who was hanged at HM Prison Glasgow on 26 May 1920.

Fraser’s situation was quite different. This troublesome soldier had arrived in England too late to see active service, and had cast aside his uniform and deserted as soon as the war was over. He lived as a civilian from the proceeds of selling pots and pans, and from crime. He and an accomplice were arrested in Belfast for the brutal murder of a man they had assaulted and robbed in a Glasgow park on 3 February 1920. This was a straight out civil matter and the fact that Fraser was still an “illegal absentee” from the AIF was not raised during the trial.

The subject of military executions during the First World War has been the subject of increasing interest in recent years. Throughout the war the death penalty was imposed on British soldiers for various crimes, including murder. Overwhelmingly, the most common charge was desertion. Various moves have been made to gain posthumous pardons for these men largely in the belief that they did not receive a fair hearing in the prevailing circumstances. The British Commonwealth forces executed over 300 of their own troops during the war, but none was a member of the AIF. But the claim that “no Australian soldier was executed during the war” overlooks the little known story of Verney Asser. Of course, the claim remains essentially correct, since it refers to military executions, not those under Civil Law.

Verney Asser died in disgrace. His entitlement to medals was cancelled; he has no marked grave; nor is his name recorded on the Australian War Memorial’s roll of honour in Canberra. Joseph Harold Durkin’s name is there. This unfortunate soldier received a military funeral and is buried in the war cemetery at St John’s Churchyard, Sutton Veny, Wiltshire. His resting place is in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and he lies in the small cemetery with 142 other Australians who died while in the local camps or hospital during the war.

Author Peter Burness is Senior Curator, Gallery Development, Australian War Memorial.

References:

  • National Archives Files: NAA B2455; A.J. Fraser; J.H. Durkin; V Asser.
  • Australian War Memorial File; AWM Series 10: 4304/9/75.
  • Information from Kilmore Historical Society.

Reprinted with the permission of Peter Burness and Wartime magazine. Originally published in issue 21 of Wartime, the official magazine of the Australian War Memorial.

The Durkin Family of Kilmore

By Heather Knight

(Originally published in Kilmore Connections, June 2003)

In 1890, Bartholomew Durkin, born in County Mayo, Ireland, married Clara Poulton. Clara was a native of Kilmore and was born in 1862 to John Driver Poulton and Jane Burge.

The children of Clara and Bartholomew were all born at Kilmore; Thomas in 1890, William Clarence b.1891, Joseph Harold b.1893, John born and died (age 1 day) in 1895, Michael John b. 1896, Margaret Mary b.1898, Anthoney b.1900, twins Emanuel Ignatius and Patrick born and died in 1902.

Clara Durkin died in 1902 age 39 after giving birth to twin boys. The Kilmore Free Press (6 March 1902) wrote this poignant obituary: “We regret this week having to record the death of Mrs. Durkin, wife of Mr Bartholomew Durkin, of Sydney Street, which sad event occurred on Friday morning last under melancholy circumstances at the age of 38 years. Deceased lady, who was a native of Kilmore and much respected gave birth to twin boys a few days previously, and death ensued from blood poisoning. She leaves a young family of eight children most of whom are of too tender an age to realise their great loss. The remains were interred in the Kilmore Catholic cemetery on Saturday afternoon.” Sadly, one of the babies died shortly after his mother and the other a few months later.

On 27 November 1917, Joseph Harold Durkin, the middle child of Bartholomew and Clara, was callously murdered while serving with the AIF in England. Incredibly, the Kilmore newspapers of the time did not make headlines from his brutal murder. This was probably due to the initial belief, following the findings of the original coronial inquiry, that Joseph Durkin had committed suicide. Joseph’s father, Bartholomew, probably kept what he believed to be the circumstances of his son’s death quiet, fearing the shame and indignity that a death by suicide would bring to his family.

On 13 December 1917 the Kilmore Free Press printed this small paragraph announcing the death of Joseph Durkin: — “Acting Corporal Joseph Durkin, a Kilmore boy and son of Mr. S. Durkin, Sydney Street, lost his life at the front.”

The myth seems to have continued; death at the front was far more noble than death by suicide or murder at the hands of a comrade. In January 1918, about the time of the murder trial of Verney Asser in England, the Kilmore Advertiser wrote: “Mr B. Durkin, Sydney Street, Kilmore, has received the following letter from the secretary of the Railway Commissioners relative to the death of his son Acting-Corporal J. Durkin, who was killed in action in France recently:— “I am directed by the Commissioners to convey to you their sincere sympathy in the great loss you have sustained by the regretted death of your son whilst on service with the Expeditionary Forces of the Commonwealth.” Prior to enlisting, Acting-Corporal Durkin was a trusted and faithful employee of the Railway Department.”

In December 1918 the Kilmore Advertiser makes brief mention that:— “Mr B. Durkin received a photo of the grave of his son Corporal Joseph Harold Durkin, who died 27 Nov 1917 at Sutton Veny, Wiltshire.”

Bartholomew Durkin died in 1926, twenty-four years after his wife. This brief obituary outlines his life:—”[death] Of Mr Bartholomew Durkin, which occurred in the Kilmore hospital, where he had been an inmate some time. He was 63 years of age, a widower, a native of Ireland and carried on a tailoring business for a period of about 40 years in Kilmore. His remains were interred in the Catholic cemetery on Thursday Rev. Father Gleeson, P.P. attending to the obsequies. Mr. Beegan carried out the mortuary arrangements” – (Kilmore Free Press 15 ApriL 1926).

Records indicate that Bartholomew is buried with his parents Bartholomew and Norah, and sister Bridget in the Kilmore Catholic Cemetery; his name has not been added to the large monument. Joseph Durkin is commemorated on the Kilmore War Memorial, Kilmore Shire Honour Roll and Assumption College Honour Roll.

References:

  • Kilmore Free Press and Kilmore Advertiser]
  • Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour Database and Nominal Roll.
  • Joseph Durkin’s War Service Record, on-line at National Archives of Australia http://www.aa.gov.au

Kilmore Public Cemetery – Crane and Hammond

The following article by Grahame Thom was originally published in the December 2009 edition of our Newsletter, Kilmore Connections

On Sunday 25 October [2009], the Society conducted two successful events, first a tour of Kilmore Public Cemetery and second a lecture on the WW1 Australian soldiers remains recently found at Fromelles.

In preparing for the Cemetery tour I decided to feature two Kilmore residents whose passing are inscribed on two headstones in the cemetery; Samuel Ernest Crane and John Hammond. By doing this I wanted to demonstrate how reliable information can be gained quickly from the Societyʼs indexes and from searching the internet.

Crane family grave, Kilmore Public Cemetery
Crane family grave, Kilmore Public Cemetery

Samuel Ernest Crane

Private Samuel Ernest Crane AIF was killed in France on 20 April 1918, aged 36 years and his death was inscribed by his family on the Crane headstone in the Methodist Section. His parents were Sarah E Crane who died on 8 September 1909 and Thomas Crane who died in 1937.

Heather Knight checked her indexes and found a number of references. Samuel Ernest Craneʼs name appears on the Kilmore War Memorial, the Roll of Honour for the Kilmore State School, and the honour roll at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Also Heather found three references in the Kilmore Advertiser.

  • 25 May 1918 – a report of a memorial service for S E Crane, son of Mr T Crane
  • 14 June 1918 – a report that Thomas Crane had received a certificate as an expression of the loss of his son.
  • 20 July 1918 – a report that the Crane family had received a letter from the Chaplain of the 6th Battalion.

On the internet I checked the Commonwealth War Graves site and found a page “In memory of Private Samuel Ernest Crane, 2140, 6th Bn, Australian Infantry, AIF, who died aged 35 on 20 April 1918, son of Thomas and Sarah Elizabeth Crane, of Kilmore, Victoria, Australia, Remembered with Honour, Arneke British Cemetery, France”.

This cemetery contains 435 Commonwealth burials from WWI and five from WW2, and 126 French and five German war graves. The village of Arneke is about 50 kms south-east of Calais and eight kms north west of Cassel.

I then searched the National Archives of Australia web site and within the Defence records found Samuelʼs WWI file of 77 pages. The following is a limited extract from those pages. His enlistment paper shows that Samuel enlisted on 4 March 1915 at Broadmeadows. He then joined his Regiment, the 6th Batt Relief.

Samuel was an engineer, aged 32 years and 9 months, from Kilmore, Victoria, five foot six inches in height, weighed 11 stone eight pounds, fair complexion, grey eyes, brown hair, and religion Methodist, His next of kin was his father Thomas Crane of Kilmore, and he had served in the 5th Victorian Mounted Regiment in
South Africa.

Samuel served on Gallipoli in August 1915 and as a result of being wounded was shipped to England where he recovered in hospital at Hamstead After recovering he served in Egypt and then in France.
During this time he was promoted to Acting Corporal and then twice as Acting Sergeant but on embarking from England to France Samuel reverted to Private in October 1917. On 16 April while in action in France Samuel received gun shot wounds to both legs and died on 20 April 1918.

His army file contains letters to and from his father concerning Samuelʼs burial arrangements. His father was living at Fair View, Kilmore. Samuel was awarded 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

John Hammond

Readers will recall that as a result of advice submitted to Council by Heather, a small access road near the Kilmore Post Office has been called John Hammond Place. The Hammond familyʼs headstone in the Anglican Section of the Kilmore Public Cemetery reveals that John Hammond passed away on 20 March 1884.

Heather provided the following obituaries.

Kilmore Advertiser 22 March 1884 page 3
“Death of Mr. John Hammond.
We regret exceedingly to have to record the death of Mr. John Hammond, the well known livery stable and hotelkeeper, which took place at his residence, the Red Lion Hotel, on Thursday morning. He had been ailing for some time, but only took to his bed about three weeks ago, and gradually sank until he died. Mr. Hammond, who was a very old resident of Kilmore, was born of humble but respectable parents in the county of Northampton, England, and was at the age of 14 years apprenticed as a wheelwright to Mr. William Butcher, of Fostersʼ Booth, in the parish of Pallishall, county of Northampton. Having served seven years, he wrought some time as journeyman, and shortly afterwards left England for the colonies, arriving in Kilmore from Queensland some 32 years ago. He was at once employed by the late Mr. Wm Beckett, whose shop old residents will remember being situated in the small paddock now enclosed and known as Rose Cottage property. After working for some time with Mr. Beckett, he commenced business in company with Mr. George Lansley, late of Kilmore, and now of Mooroopna. This was carried on in Sydney Street on the present site of the Bank of Victoria, until Mr. Lansley left, when Mr. Hammond continued the business, combining with it that of livery stable keeper. On Messrs Spurling and Palmer giving up business as livery stable keepers, Mr. Hammond removed to their new premises, where he soon established himself, and became a great favourite with the travelling public. Some years ago he rented the Red Lion Hotel, which was creditably conducted by him; he was also contractor for the mails between Kilmore and the railway station, and in every position gave uniform satisfaction. He was of a very kind and generous disposition, and universally respected. His loss will be keenly felt by those who had occasion to come in daily contact with him. He leaves a widow and several children, three of whom are of tender years. Much sympathy is expressed for all his sorrowing relations, and deep regret that the town should lose such an honored and respected resident. Mr. Hammond was 59 years of age at the time of his death, and as a mark of respect to his memory, almost all the shops in Sydney Street have been shuttered for the past two days. The funeral takes place this afternoon at three oʼclock.”

Kilmore Free Press 27 March 1884.
“Mr. John Hammond, whose serious illness we announced a fortnight ago, died on Thursday morning last. Deceased gentleman, who had been a resident of Kilmore for over 30 years, had been ailing for sometime past but never gave up is really active occupation, being certainly one of the most industrious in our midst, until within a few days of his succumbing to the inevitable. We have had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Hammond for more than a quarter of a century, during which time he carried on a wheelwright and blacksmithʼs establishment on or close to the site now occupied by the Bank of Victoria, the livery stables formerly kept by Spurling and Palmer, and lastly the Red Lion Hotel, in all of which avocations he was attentive and obliging. Deceased reared a large family in our midst, for whom the strongest sympathy is felt in their loss. That he was generally respected was evinced by the large number who attended the funeral on Saturday. Mr. Hammond was 63 years of age at the time of his death.”

Kilmore Advertiser 29 March 1884 page 2
“The funeral of Mr. John Hammond, of the Red Lion Hotel, took place on Saturday last, and it was one of the largest yet seen in the district. At 3 oʼclock the corpse was removed to Christ Church, where the impressive service of the Church of England was read by the Rev. A. E. Harris, in the absence of the Rev. A. Toomath. At the conclusion of the service, the burial hymn “When our heads are bowed with woe,” was sung by the choir, and the Dead March in Saul played on the organ. The cortege then proceeded along Union and Sydney streets to the General Cemetery, where the last obsequies were held. Mr. Weisel had charge of the funeral arrangements.”

Using the internet I found on the familysearch.org web site that John Hammond was baptised on 21 September 1823 at Pattishall, Northampton, the son of Thomas and Ann Hammond.

The 1841 Census of England and Wales on the ancestry.com web site revealed that John Hammond, aged 15 years (ages rounded down to nearest five years), apprentice, was living in Pallishall at the home of the Butcher family, with William Butcher, aged 40 years, wheelwright as head of the household.

I then checked the probate records held by the Public Records Office of Victoria and was able to download from the PROV web site, at no cost a copy of Johnʼs will and other related papers. John Hammond, hotelkeeper, left his estate in trust to his executors Albert Lobb and Thomas Lade, both graziers of Darraweit Guim, for the benefit of his wife Maria who is to use the proceeds for the education of their daughters Elizabeth, Lucy, Mary, and Fanny. After the death of Maria and once the youngest had reached 21 years of age, the executors are to give each surviving daughter an equal share of his estate.

At the time of his death, Johnʼs estate was valued at £1019-17-0 and included two parcels of land; a blacksmithʼs forge in Sydney Street (£100) and 2 acres in Moranding (£10). His personal estate included 20 horses (£180.10.0), two omnibuses (£92.10.0), five buggies (£66.10.0), one waggonette (£20), and household furniture and effects (£359.6.6).

These are just examples of what can be found and further research will reveal more. For example, from the Victorian births, deaths and marriages indexes held by the Society, and there are a number of references to both the Crane and Hammond families in the three published histories of Kilmore :-

  • Kilmore – A tale of the century by J H Maher
  • Kilmore on the Sydney Road by Maya Tucker
  • Kilmore – Those that came before by Heather Knight

The Boer War and the Districtsʼ Forgotten Soldiers

Photo: Lt. Leslie Cecil Maygar, VC, DSO, of Dean Station, Kilmore, Vic, of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles ; c.1901, South Africa

The following article by Jim Lowden was originally published in the December 1999 edition of our Newsletter, Kilmore Connections

Background

Boer settlers established the Orange Free State and Transvaal in southern Africa and these states were officially recognised by the British government in 1852. The discovery of gold and diamonds in these territories in the 1860ʼs meant a rapid influx of immigrants, including some Australians. The Boers treated these ʻnewcomersʼ or Uitlanders with contempt and this caused unease.

In 1899 British interests gained British government support and a military force was prepared for South Africa. The Boers learned of these preparations and delivered an ultimatum to the British Government on 9 October 1899 demanding that their military build
up in South Africa cease.

After receiving no reply in the stated two days, they attacked with forces from the Orange Free State and Transvaal. They surrounded Ladysmith, a strategic railway junction on the Natal border, and also laid siege to British garrisons at the other key border posts of Kimberley and Mafeking. There was great jubilation in Kilmore when the word came through that the siege of Mafeking had been broken on 19 May 1900.

The maintenance of the siege at these border posts had tied up large numbers of Boer troops. However, by this stage a considerable number of Cape colonists had also joined the Boer side to boost their numbers.

The Boer War, which was regarded as ʻthe last of the gentlemanʼs warsʼ, was different from the traditional large fullscale military confrontations. It was a highly mobile guerrilla war requiring skilled horsemanship and marksmanship. The Boers would surreptitiously group and then charge at a gallop with their German-made Mauser guns blazing. They became masters in the element of surprise, and their passage was unfettered throughout the whole area. This mobility provided a major logistical problem for the British military strategists. The initial requirement for foot soldiers was soon changed to mounted cavalry.

It was only after several humiliating defeats, that the British replaced Lord Roberts with Lord Kitchener as commander in chief in November 1900.

Kitchener was determined to stop the constant unchallenged roving of the Boer forces across the country and he established a large network of fortified and armed blockhouses along strategic roads and railways to ensure delivery of stores and the safe passage of reinforcements being sent to the frontline.

The blockhouses, surrounded by barbed-wire entanglements, were normally 1000 metres apart, to enable the intervening ground to be safely raked by rifle fire. They formed a wavy line across the country and were generally connected by phone.

Small detachments of armed cavalry scouts were intermittently based at these blockhouses to detect the movement of Boer soldiers and provide a net against which the enemy could be cornered.

It was also Kitchener who ruthlessly adopted the ʻscorched earthʼ policy of burning the Boersʼ farmsteads and crops and taking their livestock, ensuring that their sustenance lines were cut. They then moved the Boer women and children and native servants into centralised concentration camps. This had two unforseen effects. It relieved the Boer soldiers of their family responsibilities and ʻconcentrationʼ camp conditions caused an international furore.

However it also provided the British soldiers with better rations which normally consisted of tea, bread and dripping for breakfast and biscuits and jam during the day. Meat, until Kitchener assumed command, had not been a regular item on their diet!

A number of district soldiers, including Kilmoreʼs Ernie Crane, had their ʻnewsyʼ letters published in the Kilmore Free Press or the Kilmore Advertiser.

Illness, from gastroenteritis or typhoid, was a regular item mentioned and it is not surprising that half of Australiaʼs Boer War casualties died from disease such as Percy Seymour who died at Graff-Riennet.

The Boer soldiers knew their country and its strategic landmarks and were regularly known to remove the uniforms or ʻkhakiʼ from the dead and wounded British soldiers for their own use.

One controversial action was known as the Wilmansrust Affair took place on 12 June 1901. Boer commandos, dressed in khaki, infiltrated the picquet line after dark and opened a volley of Mauser fire on the relaxing soldiers. Their horses were stampeded and the Boers took everything usable and left the Australian unit in disarray, with 18 killed, including two Kilmore district boys, Rube Thornton and Pat Mahoney, and 42 wounded to the care of the battalion veterinarian.

Several Australians escaped the massacre and reported to Major-General Stuart Beaston, but he declined to send relief until daylight next day. Beaston described the Victorians as a group of “fat arsed, pot bellied, lazy lot of wasters”. He later elaborated further, stating “In my opinion they are a lot of white-livered curs…You can add dogs too!”

The Victorians did not take kindly to these words and returned to Middelburg. (The inquiry found the actions of Beaston and the Picquet Commander, Major C. J. N. Morris wanting.)

On 7 July the Victorians were ordered out on another operation and Private James Steele was overheard by a British officer to say “It will be better for the men to be shot than to go out with a man who called them white-livered curs:” Private Steele and two others, Privates Herbert Parry and Arthur Richards, were arrested and convicted of ʻinciting mutinyʼ and were sentenced by court martial to death by firing squad, a sentence which was commuted to prison terms by Lord Kitchener. When word reached Australia the press took up the cause and the sentences were quashed and Beaston was returned to India.

The Boers continued to push ʻthe rules of warʼ and it was those rules that the Bushveldt Carbineers, Lieutenants Henry Harbord ʻThe Breakerʼ Morant and Peter Handcock tested to their ultimate fate, to their death by firing squad. The charges against Lieutenant Harry
Picton were dismissed and the death sentence on Lieutenant George Ramsdale Witton was commuted to life gaol term.

The Australian public were outraged at the British ʻmurderʼ of their volunteers. Witton was subsequently released from prison in England and returned to Australia to settle at ʻThe Elmsʼ at Lancefield and it was here that he wrote his account of the sorry business, The Scapegoats of the Empire.

Australian Involvement

On 28 September 1899, military leaders from all Australian states met in Melbourne and agreed that in the event of war breaking out in South Africa, a force of 2500 would be available.

Initially half of the pledge was to be made up of foot soldiers, but eventually most Australian soldiers were to be mounted cavalry.

District lads enlisted from their residence of that time. Mick Conway, Australiaʼs first casualty, enlisted from Perth. Donald Fraser enlisted from New South Wales and the Mackenzie brothers, who were practising medicine in New Zealand, both enlisted with the New Zealand Medical Corps. One Heathcote lad, Will Aitken, who was working in the Kimberley mines, enlisted from there, and was killed at Colenso on 15 Dec 1899 and is believed to have been the first Australian born casualty.

Many serving members of the existing Victorian Militia volunteered their services. Some of these were declared medically unfit and they joined one of several ʻprivateʼ units such as Bethuneʼs Mounted Infantry (Bethune had only one hand!), as did David Crawford and Frank Egan; Cameronʼs Scouts recruited Bob Sharkey and Jim Still; and the Marquis of Tullibardineʼs Scottish Horse, Fred Dau and Dave Davies who were both killed. They all took their own horses and lamented their wounding as did Charlie Bidstrup. They had also to leave them in South Africa on their return to Australia.

The Australian bushmen proved themselves to be excellent soldiers and matched the ability of the Boer soldiers who conducted the mobile guerrilla war.

Even Lord Roberts, the British commander, who was initially shocked by the unorthodox and casual nature of the Australian soldier, could not fault their ability as extremely brave and mobile soldiers. Indeed, it was these Australian horsemen who rode in to pick up many a British infantryman caught in a sticky situation.

Each Australian State sent its own contingent, which was divided into squadrons of 125 men and these were attached to British units.

The Fifth Victorian Mounted Rifles was the largest Victorian group of which Captain Leslie Maygar was a member. Captain George Johnston, who had married Kilmore girl Margaret Hobson, joined as a special service officer initially with the railwaysʼ unit and then with the 62nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery.

Eventually after Federation, on 1 January 1901, the State contingents all were brought within the membership of the Australian Commonwealth Horse. Some of the Kilmore district soldiers who had seen an earlier tour of duty with a Victorian unit re-enlisted for a second tour with one of the Commonwealth Horse units. High Campʼs Sergeant-Major Spooner, returned with the 2nd Australian Commonwealth Horse (ACH). Even George Johnston who had been seriously wounded and invalided home in 1900, returned as commander of the 4th ACH Regiment. A keen Tom Dwyer, from Mia Mia, who was wounded and invalided home in October 1900, rejoined his original unit the 4th Victorian Imperial Bushmen in January 1901, returned home with his unit in April, rejoined with Johnstonʼs 4th ACH.

A final departure of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles from South Africa, drew the following telegram from the British commander, Lord Kitchener to their Commanding Officer, at Cape Town on 11 March 1902.

“Please convey to Australians my warm appreciation of their gallant and arduous service in this country. In the name of the Army of South Africa, I wish them good luck and God speed.”

The Cost

War ceased with the signing of the Peace of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902, which brought the Boer states under British rule.

The Australians lost 251 killed in action or dying from wounds. A further 267 died from disease. Kilmore and surrounding districts lost six from its contingent of more than seventy and another died from wounds on return.

In total Victoria contributed 193 officers and 3372 of other ranks to the total Australian commitment of 16,175 personnel.

The Guild of Loyal Women provided metal crosses for the graves of British casualties and these were erected on all the known graves.

It is strange that only one memorial exists to commemorate the Boer War in our region and that is to Pat Mahoney in the Darraweit Primary School grounds. A memorial committee was established for Rube Thornton but did not gain Council support and apparently did not proceed further.

Longwood, near Euroa, has a memorial listing the names of 22 soldiers, who served from their district in the Boer War. Even the recent new Memorial Wall at the Kilmore cenotaph remembering the ʻotherʼ wars did not include the Boer War, when some 25 soldiers appear to have either been born in or enlisted from or had close connection with the Kilmore district. Another 50 came from Wandong, Wallan, Darraweit Guim, Lancefield, Mia Mia, Pyalong,
Tooborac, Broadford, Strath Creek or Reedy Creek.

KILMORE AND DISTRICT BOER WAR SOLDIERS
These men appear by record, books or hearsay, either to have been born at, came from, had strong connections with, or enlisted from:

BROADFORD
Private George Tarrant BAKER (1878-19??)
Lieutenant Charles Niels BIDSTRUP (1877-1944)
Private Alexander McLEAN (1880?-19??)
Private George MCLEAN (1880-19??)
Private James Roberts MILLS (1878-19??)
Captain William ROSS
Trooper Benjamin SUTHERLAND (1867-19??)
Saddler Ralph Hamilton TAIT (1870?-19??)
Private Kenneth YORSTON (1872-19??)

BYLANDS
Captain Edgar Leslie Cecil Willis Walker ʻElsieʼ MAYGAR, VC (1871-1917)
Major Frederick George PURCELL (1875-1927)

DARRAWEIT GIJIM
Private James Francis MAHONEY (1878-19??)
Private Patrick MAHONEY (1882-19??)
Shoeing-Smith Thomas Henry MAHONEY (1876-1901)*
Sergeant Michael Francis RYAN (1880-19??)
Private Charles Stewart WALTON (1875-19 ??)

HIGH CAMP
Private J BROWN (1880-19??)
Trooper Timothy John CANTWELL (1874-1938)
Sergeant David CRAWFORD (1874-1915)
Sergeant-Major William S SPOONER (1874-1919)

KILMORE
Private Thomas S CAHILL (1867-19??)
Private Alexander CLARKE (187 1-19??)
Private William A CONWAY (l874~19??)*
Shoeing-Smith Samuel Ernest Thomas CRANE (1882-1918)
Private Francis James DODSON (1877-19??
Trooper William Francis EGAN (1868-19 ??)
Trooper Henry Mathieson FISCHER (1880-19??)
Sergeant William Nicolson FISCHER (1883-1917)
Trooper Donald FRASER (1864-1900)*
Private Thomas GOONEY (1863-19??)
Private Charles Albert HODGES (1880-19??)
Major-General George Jameson JOHNSTON (1868-1949)
Private James John MARSHALL (1873-19??)
Sergeant Percy Callan SEYMOUR (1872-1901)*
Private James Oliver Alexander STILL (1879-1956)
Shoeing-Smith Sergeant Rupert Melbourne Arthur THORNTON (1877-1901)*

LANCEFIELD
Private James Desmond CASEY (1878-19??)
Private Alfred James CATTANACH (1881-1979)
Corporal Michael John CONWAY (1871-1900)*
Private William FAGAN (1874-19??)
Private George HAMPTON (1873-19??)
Trooper Alexander ʻIkeʼ JOHNSTON (1882-1965)
Private Charles Harris MUSTEY (1875?-19??)
Private F J ʻFerdʼ SIDES (1880-19??)
Private Gilbert Benjamin YOUNG (1873-19??)

MIA MIA
Private Thomas DWYER (1874-19??)

PYALONG
Corporal James BROWN (1880-19??)
Private John H BROWN (1880-19??)
Private John Vernon RICHARDS (1874-19??)

REEDY CREEK
Sergeant Robert Thomas SHARKEY (1862-19??)
Farrier Sergeant George Herbert SHEPPARD (1879-19??)
Private W J SHEPPARD (1880-19??)

STRATH CREEK
Sergeant Martin Herbert NOYE (1874-19??)
Private Donald Alexander PATTISON (1881-19??)
Farrier Sergeant William Raymond SMITH (1875-19??)

TOOBORAC
Trooper John Thomas ARNOLD (1880?-19R?)
Private A DONALDSON (1880?- 19??)
Private Mark Edward ʻTedʼ DONALDSON (1873-19??)
Private Harold HARNELL (1870-19??)
Private William Joseph HAYES (1876-1944)
Private Charles T HOWATT (1864-19??)
Private Reginald Percy NORTON (1873-19??)

WALLAN
Saddler Herbert James ABBOTT (1873-1958)
Private Neil McKENDRICK (1871-1944)
Trooper T MeKENDRICK (1880?-19??)
Lance-Corporal George Victor ROBERTSON (1874-19??)

WANDONG
Private Frederick George DAU (1882-1901)*
Saddler Lance-Corporal David Wellington DAVIES (1875-1901)*
Private Charles McK1NNON (1870?-1901)*

WILLOWMAVIN
Private James Joseph KIRBY (1875-19??)
Surgeon Captain Andrew Hardie MacKENZIE (1873-19??)
Surgeon Captain Murdoch MacKENZIE (1861-1912)
Trooper Norman McKENZIE (1874-1942)
Private William MacKENZIE (1874-19??)
Private William SEYMOUR (1864-19??)

(Research by Jim Lowden)

Lt Leslie Maygar, AWM P05481.003
Lieutenant (Lt) Leslie Cecil Maygar, DSO, of Dean Station, Kilmore, Vic, of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles who was the first Victorian to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), which he won at Geelhoutboom in South Africa on 23 November 1901, for rescuing a comrade under fire. (Source: Australian War Memorial P05481.003)