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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'.
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'.
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.