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First Victorian Killed In South Africa Logo

9 February 1900

Attached to the 1st Australian Regiment--the pre-Federation unit combining contingents from all the Australian Colonies--William J. Lambie, the senior military correspondent (representing the Melbourne Age), and another correspondent A.G. 'Smiler' Hayes got separated from a patrol at Jasfontein. Suddenly 40 Boers surrounded them, demanding surrender. Lambie and Hales galloped off. The Boers fired a volley, and Lambie fell dead, with two bullets through the head and one through his heart.

Another correspondent, Major Reay of the Melbourne Herald rode out under a white flag to ascertain the fate of the missing journalists. Lambie's watch and other articles were given to him by the Boers. He was shown Lambie's grave.

Recalling the fatal incident later, survivor 'Smiler' Hales explained how he and Lambie had become separated from the advance party, and how they were rushed by Boers who had been hidden among low hills nearby. 'A rain of lead whistled around us', Hales wrote. The Boers were shouting for them to surrender. Lambie and Hales decided to make a dash to safety.

'We were racing by this time, Lambie's big chestnut mare had gained a length on my little veldt pony, and we were not more than a hundred yards away from the Mauser rifles that had closed in on us from the kopjes. A voice called out in good English: 'Throw up your hands, you d----- fools'. But the galloping fever was on us both, and we only crouched lower on our horses' backs, and rode all the harder, for even a barn-yard fowl loves liberty.

'All at once I saw my comrade throw his hands up with a spasmodic gesture. He rose in his stirrups, and fairly bounded out of his saddle, and as he spun round in the air I saw the red blood on the white face, and I knew that death had come to him sudden and sharp. Again the rifles spoke, and the lead was closer to me than ever a friend sticks in time of trouble, and I knew in my heart that the next few strides would settle things. The black pony was galloping gamely under my weight. Would he carry me safely out of that line of fire, or would he fail me?

'Suddenly something touched me on the the right temple; it was not like a blow; it was not a shock; for half a second I was conscious. I knew I was hit; knew that the reins had fallen from my nerveless hands, knew that I was lying down upon my horse's back, with my head hanging below his throat. Then all the world went out in one mad whirl. Earth and heaven seemed to meet as if by magic. My horse seemed to rise with me, not to fall, and then--chaos'.

Photo of Mr Lambie
William Lambie. Photo published in
In Memoriam: In Memory of the
Gallant Officers and Men who died
in defence of our Empire in the
Transvaal War: G. A. Osboldstone:
Melbourne: 1900.

When he awoke, 'Smiler' Hales was taken to a shady spot and was laid down gently. A Boer bent over him and washed the blood that had dried on his face, and then carefully bound up the wound. Hales enquired about Lambie, who he supposed would be left to rot on the veldt.

'The Boer leader's face flushed angrily. 'Do you take us for savages?' he said. 'Rest easy. Your friend will get a decent burial. What was his rank? When told that Lambie and Hales were war correspondents, the leader said 'Sir, you dress exactly like two British officers; you ride out with a fighting party, you try to ride off at a gallop under the very muzzles of our rifles when we tell you to surrender. You can blame no one but yourselves for this day's work'.

When Hales was moved with other wounded prisoners to a far away Boer farmhouse hospital, he noted that at every farm they passed people came out to see them. 'Not one taunting word was uttered in our hearing, not one braggart sentence passed their lips. Men brought us cooling drinks, or moved us into more comfortable positions on the trolley . . . while the little children crowded around us with tears running down their cheeks as they looked upon the blood-stained khaki clothing of the wounded British'.

Lambie in 1888 William Lambie as a dapper reporter for The Age
in 1888. Photo in the holdings of Public Record Office Victoria*.

Hales stated that every soldier he questioned who had been wounded and captured by the Boers, without one single exception, declared they had been treated grandly. Boer and British wounded had been treated identically, receiving the best medical attention that could be given.

The Premier of Victoria , Mr McLean, later told the Legislative Asssembly of Victoria about the death of William Lambie:

Mr Speaker, I desire to express my deep regret at the sad intelligence conveyed to us through the papers this day with regard to the first death that has occurred in connection with troops sent from Victoria to South Africa. The gentleman who has been killed was well known to members of this House. He was an able journalist and an excellent authority on military matters, and I am sure his genial face will be very much missed in the chamber. Of course, I need hardly tell you that I refer to Mr Lambie, the War Correspondent of The Age.

Note: Several ex-patriate Victorians who served with irregular regiments raised in South Africa were killed in earlier actions.

(William Lambie had been wounded while reporting the earlier conflict in the Sudan).

 Lambie won the 1888 Victorian Rifle Association 'Press Match' competition at Williamstown rifle range, which was open to one person from each newspaper. He also was presented with a handsome sterling silver knife and fork set with mother of pearl handles.

Images kindly provided by Trevor Pickett.


* Photo published here with permission from the Keeper
of Public Records. In VPRS 840: Vol. 1: p. 17.


By Max Chamberlain

Several Australian newspapers sent war correspondents to the Boer war to report events for a public eager to read about their contingents in action. Among them was Australia's senior military reporter, W.J. Lambie (Melbourne Age, Adelaide Advertiser, Sydney Daily Telegraph), who had been with the New South Wales contingent in the Sudan in 1885, where he was wounded. Other Age representatives were D. Pontin and G. King.

Some Australians represented English papers: M.D. Donohoe (London Chronicle), M. Mempes (Black and White) and A.A.G. Hales (Daily News). Others, like Frank Wilkinson (Sydney Daily Telegraph, Melbourne Age, Adelaide Advertiser), Donald Macdonald (Melbourne Argus) and W.T. Reay (Melbourne Herald), wrote on early campaigns and later produced books on the Australians in various engagements. Lambie was the first Victorian to die in this war when, accompanied by Hales, he was with a patrol that was attached by 40 Boers at Jasfontein on 9 February 1900. As they tried to escape Lambie was killed and Hales was wounded and captured. Reay and J.A. Cameron (Reuters, Daily Chronicle, West Australian) later rode out to visit Lambie's grave site, being blindfolded by the Boers under de la Rey, who expressed regret at the death of a non-combatant.
A.B. (Banjo) Paterson (Reuters, Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Argus) and H. Spooner (Sydney Evening News) were with General French when he entered Kimberley, and Paterson gave some account in his book Happy Dispatches and in his poem With French to Kimberley. Together with H.A. Gwynne (Reuters) and P. Landon (Times), he was first into Bloemfontein ahead of the army. Spooner was another war correspondent to die in this war when after observing the action at Glen Siding, he had a recurrence of fever and died at Deelfontein in May 1900.

Macdonald returned from the siege of Ladysmith a sick man, wrote How we kept the flag flying and articles on the Australian participation, notably the series Bushmen in battle, and Victoria's fifth. After the capture of Bloemfontein Reay also returned ill and his reports were gathered into his book Australians in war with valuable reference to the action at Pink Hill. Hales also gave an account of Pink Hill as told to him by a Boer captor, in his book Campaign pictures of the war in South Africa. Bert Toy (Perth Morning Herald) wrote on actions including Koster River and returned to a distinguished career in New Zealand and Sydney.

Most of the Australian war correspondents had returned by late 1900. Frank Wilkinson accompanied NSW units until about September 1900 and some account of their experiences were included in his books Australian Cavalry and Australia at the Front. Chaplain James Green was at Elands River and contributed newspaper articles and later wrote The Story of the Australian Bushmen. Thereafter firsthand accounts of the Australians relied on occasional mention in the London cables or letters from serving troops. For this reason the history of the later contingents is fragmentary.
It is surprising that no attempt was made to utilise the war correspondents' experience in preparing an Australian official history of the war, as happened in later wars with C.E.W. Bean and Gavin Long. Macdonald's The Australasian contingents in the South African war - Their work for Queen and Empire - A historical record is perhaps the most readable narrative of the colonial participation although with noticeable gaps. For The Story of South Africa Volume II the editor attempted a similar task. It was extended in successive editions as the war progressed and also has important omissions. It included chapters by Paterson, Wilkinson and Padre Green as well as serving troops. Green's account of the Australian Commonwealth Horse in the final edition is a valuable contemporary account of the first Australia-wide force sent overseas.

The war correspondents faced the same hardships as the troops, risked their lives and health in difficult situations and rode long distances to get their stories dispatched. They suffered at the hands of Generals an censors, but these early Australian war journalists gave the people at home some idea of the colonial experience and achievements in the first year of the war, and left valuable permanent records for future generations.

Max Chamberlain is a member of the Anglo-Boer War Study Group of Australia.


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