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Trooper (later Lieutenant Colonel) John Bisdee VC

John Hutton Bisdee (1869 - 1930) was born at 'Hutton Park', Melton Mowbray, Tasmania on 28 September, 1869. He was the eighth child of John Bisdee and his wife, Ellen Jane, nee Butler. His grandfather, also John Bisdee, had arrived in the colony in 1821. John Hutton Bisdee was educated at the Hutchins School, Hobart, and then worked on his father's property until 1900, when he enlisted in the 1st Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen's Contingent to serve in the South African War. The contingent departed Tasmania on 26 April, 1900 and while serving in South Africa it was involved in operations in the Cape Colony, Transvaal and the Orange River Colony.

On 1 September, 1900, near Warm Bad, Transvaal, Trooper Bisdee was part of a scouting party which was ambushed by the Boers. The following account is taken from Bisdee's diary, published in Tasmanians in the Transvaal War: Sunday, 1 September ... Twenty of us sent on patrol in the afternoon under Captain Brooke and Lieutenant Wylly to secure some cattle. Had a terrible experience, which I shall never forget. We were led through a narrow neck into a veritable death trap. I cannot understand how the officers did not realise the danger. This neck led into a sort of basin with steep rocky hills rising in front. They opened fire on our five advance guardsmen at short range, and upon all of us, and how we got away at all is most wonderful. As it was we had four wounded. Wylly slightly, and Sergeant G Shaw and Willoughby and Corporal ES Brown rather worse, and GH Brown very seriously, and the guide also seriously wounded. The two latter fell into the hands of the Boers, and we fear that they are in a critical state. The others are being attended to by the ambulance. The bullets came round us as thick as hail, and exploded with loud report as they struck. Captain Brook was unhorsed. I gave him mine , running alongside myself, as he received a slight wound in the leg.

Corporal E.S. Brown's horse was shot, and Wylly gave him his horse, as he was wounded in the lower leg, the Boer pellet lodging in a coin he had in a small leather purse in his puttees. The family still has the purse and coin - with a deep concavity in it.

Groom then picked up Wylly on his horse, and we rode for our lives. Two men Clarke and Blackaby lost their horses (Clarke gave his to Willoughby), but managed to evade the Boers, and arrived in camp late. Walters horse was shot and, he stopping with G.H. Brown was captured by the Boers, who let him go to report upon E.S. Brown's case, and send an ambulance in. Altogether it has been a terrible experience, and seems so utterly foolhardy to go into such a place without scouts well out in front and good supports behind. All for the sake of a few cattle.

For this action both Bisdee and Wylly were awarded the Victoria Cross. Bisdee's Victoria Cross was the first to be gazetted for an Australian-born soldier serving in an Australian unit.

The citation for his Victoria Cross was published in the London Gazette on 13 November 1900:

On the 1st September, 1900, Trooper Bisdee was one of an advanced scouting party passing through a rocky defile near Warm Bad, Transvaal. The enemy, who were in ambuscade, opened a sudden fire at close range and six out of the party of eight were hit, including two officers. The horse of one of the wounded officers broke away and bolted. Finding that the officer was too badly wounded to go on, Trooper Bisdee dismounted, placed him on his horse, mounted behind him and conveyed him out of range, This act was performed under very hot fire, and in a very exposed place.

In Tasmania this feat has been commemorated by the naming of three mountains; Mt Bisdee, Mt Victoria Cross and Mt Wylly.

During November 1900, Bisdee was in hospital with a lung infection and was then invalided home to Tasmania. Following his recovery he went back to South Africa as a lieutenant in No. 1 Company, 2nd Tasmanian Bushmen's Contingent, where he served from March 1901 until the end of the war. For services in South Africa he received the Queen's Medal with three clasps (Transvaal, Cape Colony and Wittebergen) and the King's Medal with two clasps (South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902).

On 11 August 1902, Lieutenant John Hutton Bisdee, VC was officially presented with his Victoria Cross by the Governor of Tasmania, Sir Arthur Havelock. An account of the presentation was published in the Tasmanian Mail:

‘The decoration, which consisted of a bronze Victoria Cross (bearing an inscription), attached to a scarlet ribbon, was pinned on the hero’s breast by His Excellency, who thereupon cordially shook hands with him, and warmly congratulated him. Immediately the Bushmen and the whole of the forces burst out into loud cheers, followed by the people cheering in all directions. Lady Havelock and Lady Lewis called for Lieut Bisdee to their carriage, and congratulated him, and he was immediately surrounded by many friends. The decoration carries with it an annuity of 10 pounds for life, whilst Lieut Bisdee, being the first Tasmanian to win the distinguished honour, will receive 50 pounds a year for life from the Citizen Life Assurance Co.’ (Tasmanian Mail)

Bisdee resumed farming at 'Hutton Park' and on 11 April 1904 he married Georgiana Theodosia Hale at St John's Anglican Church, New Town. In March 1906 he was appointed second lieutenant in the 12th Australian Light Horse Regiment (Tasmanian Mounted Infantry) and was promoted to lieutenant in November 1908 and to Captain in March 1910.

Captain Bisdee was appointed to command his regiment, the 26th Australian Light Horse Regiment (Tasmanian Mounted Infantry) from August 1913 until July 1915, when he joined the 12th Light Horse Regiment, AIF.

Bisdee sailed for Egypt in November 1915 and served in operations until a leg wound terminated his active service. In March 1916 he was seconded (as Assistant Provost Marshall) to the AIF General Headquarters, Egypt and, two months later, to the ANZAC Mounted Division. Bisdee was promoted to major (AIF) in September 1916 and in January 1918 he resumed regimental duties with the 12th Light Horse (AIF). He was appointed as Assistant Provost Marshall (AIF) in Egypt in January 1918 and the following month he was granted the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel. He was mentioned in dispatches and awarded an OBE in June 1919.

Bisdee was discharged from the AIF in May 1920, and transferred to the Reserve of Officers with the honorary rank of lieutenant-colonel. He was placed on the reserve list in 1921 and on the retired list in September 1929.

He continued to farm at 'Ashburton', Bridgewater, the property he had acquired in 1915. John Hutton Bisdee died at his home, 'Tranquillity', Melton Mowbray, on 14 January 1930.

He is buried in St James' churchyard, Jericho. His wife had died in 1926. They had no children.

Bisdee's Victoria Cross is displayed in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, and his miniature medals are displayed in the Military Museum of Tasmania, Anglesea Barracks, Hobart.

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Source: DM Wyatt

References: J. Bufton, Tasmanians in the Transvaal War; Australian Dictionary of Biography; Walch's Tasmanian Almanac; 6th Military District Officers' Record of Service; They Dared Mightily; London Gazette, 13 November 1900; Commonwealth Gazette No 113, 6 Oct 1919, pp1466, 1477; London Gazette, 5 June 1919; Tasmanian Mail, 16 August 1902.


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