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Colonel Tom Price CB MID

Colonel Tom Price CB MID 1842 - 1911

Thomas Caradoc Rose Price was the third of eight children born to John Giles and Mary Price in Hobart, Tasmania, on 21 October 1842. His family originated from Cornwall, England. When he was four the family moved to Norfolk Island when father who was Chief Magistrate in Hobart, was persuaded to accept the position of Commandant at the penal colony. They lived there for six and a half years. In 1854 the family moved to Melbourne where John Price was accepted as Inspector-General of Penal Establishments in the State of Victoria. It has been claimed that Victoria was a lawless colony in the 1850s and 1860s. In 1854 most of the thousand or so prisoners were held in the five hulks at Williamstown. On 26 March 1857 John Price was called to Williamstown where numbers of convicts had mutinied about their provisions. When he boarded one of the ships he was surrounded by convicts and brutally bashed. He died the next day from his injuries. Seven men were hanged for the deed. Tom was 14½ years old and walked behind his father’s coffin to the grave in Melbourne Cemetery. The family moved to a new home in Brighton, Melbourne. Tom appeared to have got over his father’s death, though armchair psychologists like to re-visit the occasion to explain his behaviors in adult life. He was given an opportunity to enroll as a cadet at the East India Military College at Addiscombe in England. He first had to spend most of 1859 improving his maths and English before finally being accepted. In July 1861 he began his service in India as an ensign in the Madras Infantry; in June 1873 he received his captaincy.

In 1874 he took leave to Melbourne where he married Mary Dennistoun Baillie, whom he took back to India upon conclusion of his leave. His first two children, both daughters, were born in India. In June 1879 he was promoted to major in the 40th Native Infantry. He had a period of service in Burma but returned to India where he received his commission to Lieutenant-Colonel in April 1883. He retired shortly after this and took his family back to Melbourne. A further child, a son, had been born in 1881.

The family moved to Heidelberg to the north-east of Melbourne where Tom Price took up farming. His arrival in Australia had certainly been noticed and the Victorian Minister for Defence, Lieutenant-Colonel Sargood, prevailed upon him to offer his military skills and knowledge. By the end of 1883 he had been involved in a commission of inquiry into Victoria’s Ordnance Store. His report was frank and to the point and he made no bones about pointing the finger of blame at named officers, even though they were senior to him in rank and years.

In 1884 he became active in promoting new and encouraging existing rifle clubs; this took a toll on the time he could spend on farming which he gave away when he accepted command of the rifle clubs in 1885 and took on the task of raising, organising and commanding a new volunteer regiment of mounted riflemen with companies distributed throughout Victoria. He was given the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. On 1 May 1885 he was appointed to the establishment of the Permanent Military Forces of Victoria with a salary of £600 per annum.

His was a personality not to be trifled with. He was a strict disciplinarian and measured a man on his ability and not on his birthright. He described himself as ‘somewhat rough at times’, this, no doubt, referring to his being short-tempered, impatient with fools, occasionally lacking diplomacy and being outspoken. He was not averse to using bad language (which frequently got him into trouble) and the Melbourne Punch enjoyed lampooning him and type-casting him in the role of a foul-mouthed, ill-tempered military figure. He was never one to pander to public opinion, being disdainful of it when it turned against him but nevertheless basking in any form of approval or adulation. It has been suggested that his impassivity was due to the trauma of his father’s death but this is difficult to assess. However, despite the fall-out from the Maritime Strike of 1890, he was not a brutal man, and he showed a great deal of affection for his men, believing that if he did what he asked of them they would support him. Indeed they did; he won their respect and loyalty and as a result the 2nd Victorian Mounted Rifles contingent could claim to be the best disciplined of all the Victorian troops that served in South Africa.

The Maritime Strike of 1890

The Maritime Strike of 1890 could have tarnished his career but it did not do so though it was to be nearly ten years before the gossip about it had no further impact.

In July 1890 a foreman was discharged from a local steamer and his case was championed by the Seamen’s Union which gained the support of most of the wharfside unions for a general strike which threatened to paralyse Melbourne’s economy. The unrest continued into the next month; police were called in from the country districts and Cabinet met on 29 August, two days before a proposed mass meeting to be held in Flinders Park. It was decided by Cabinet that the military be put on standby. The State Commandant, Major General Tulloch, called Colonel Price and ordered up the military. By the 30 August there was a force of 225 men, including 80 Mounted Rifles, assembled at Victoria Barracks. In the early evening Commandant Tulloch addressed the officers and reminded them of the powers he had under ‘Queen’s Regulations’ should this situation develop into a riot. He declared that each officer would have the authority to charge the mob with drawn swords (or fixed bayonets) or to fire on them. If the latter was to be the case then the men were to aim low and not fire over the mob’s heads. Colonel Price took it upon himself to inform the men himself of this order so that there would be no misunderstanding. He summed it up for the men in the vernacular by stating that they must ‘Fire low and lay them out’. This ambiguous expression was to get Price in a great deal of hot water when it was finally made known to the public. But fortunately it was not to be put to the test for such was the public concern for law and order that the Mayor even called upon citizens to enlist for duty as special constables and over 2000 volunteered. The union organizers were careful not to provoke the authorities. Fortunately the meeting held on the 31 August was a relatively peaceful affair despite the size of the crowd which was estimated to be in excess of 50,000. The police managed to keep order and the Mounted Rifles remained at Victoria Barracks for the duration of the meeting.

Trouble over Price’s orders to his men made itself known on the 25 September. The military were still at Victoria Barracks then but the police had control of the situation even though the strike was dragging on. On the 25 The Herald newspaper published a front page article on what Price was alleged to have said to his troops in the event of trouble. It also included the order that the soldiers were to do their duty ‘even though they knew their…own brothers and sisters were in the crowd.’ A number of witnesses claimed to be able to verify the words quoted by the newspaper. The Trades Hall Council believed that the allegations against Price were true and called for his resignation. On the 27 September Price saw the Trades Hall charges in The Argus and wrote a letter to the Assistant Adjutant General outlining the true state of the facts. A number of M.L.A’s with their own populist agenda jumped on the bandwagon and criticized the Colonel for using such language. The issue moved into the parliamentary arena on the 7 October where some two hours were spent by misinformed members laying blame on Price for saying things that simply were not true. Price was fed up and asked for a court ruling to judge his actions to clear or condemn him. The State Commandant did not consider a court-martial was necessary as there was no charge against Price so he had a Court of Inquiry constituted and witnesses were called. Not surprisingly many of those who wanted Price prosecuted had used the evidence that was in The Herald of the 25 September. Anonymous ‘informants’ refused to come forward and slowly the case against Price dissolved. Members of the VMR who had been present when Price gave his orders submitted letters in his defence. The controversial comment ‘lay them out’ was understood by the men as meaning ‘disable’ them but it nevertheless remained such an ambiguous phrase that those keen to see the Colonel prosecuted argued that it meant ‘kill’ the strikers. Although the Court of Inquiry exonerated Price the mud stuck and there were many who believed that he had given orders to shoot to kill. The phrase ‘lay them out’ continued to be thrown at him by those who wanted to remind him of one of his less judicious moments.

The Boer War (1899-1902)

Denied the opportunity to accompany the 1st Victorian Contingent to the South African War in December 1899 because he was too senior an officer for the small number required, he nevertheless played a major role in the selection, equipping and training of the unit, which left under the command of Major George Eddy of the VMR.

When a second Victorian Contingent was raised in January 1900 he received permission to go with it. He went as Commanding Officer, sailing on the 13th January 1900 in the Euryalus. There were some concerns about the fact that a good half of the 2nd Victorian Mounted Rifles had come from the infantry militia and had had but ten days of training prior to their hasty departure, but Tom Price was sure that he could turn them into a good unit.

Arriving in Cape Town on 5 February 1900, there was little time for him to work further on the unit’s training for by the 12 February they were off to the central front near Colesberg. Tom Price was given command of what was to be called The Hanover Field Force (named after the station on the railway line where they disembarked). It was a modest force and consisted of his 2nd Victorians, South Australians, and Tasmanians, a local Cape corps and some raw Imperial M.I.

They were soon drawn to the command of General R.A.P. Clements whose major task was to secure the central rail line towards Norval’s Pont on the Orange Free State/Cape Colony border, and then to work with Lord Roberts in thrusting into the Free State from the south while Roberts came from the west.

Clements achieved this despite the Boers’ destruction of the Norval’s Pont railway bridge which took the railway line into the Free State. There was some fighting around Rensburg and Colesberg in late February but otherwise Boer opposition was weak and Clements’ advance into the Free State met little resistance. The Hanover Field Force was disbanded at Donkerpoort shortly after entering the Free State on the 2 0March and Tom Price, although given command of the 2nd VMR, found himself part of Colonel John Hoad’s Australian Regiment. When they reached Bloemfontein, the OFS capital on 4 April, they were reorganized once more. On the 7 April they were formed into a Mounted Infantry Corps under Colonel G. Henry, part of General Hutton’s newly formed Mounted Brigade. Known as the 4th M.I. Corps, both Victorian units were included together with the South Australians and the Tasmanians, and four companies of Imperial M.I. Senior Victorian officers expected Price to be given command of this corps but it went to an Imperial Officer. Price was given command of the Australians in the Corps.

Their time in Bloemfontein was a period of refit and securing remounts. They finally left with the main army in late April and led the advance toward the Boer positions which straddled the railway at Karee and Brandfort. At Karee Tom Price was forced into an ignominious retreat when outflanked by the Boers. He did a marvelous job in controlling what could have been a rout. He showed great bravery under fire by taking up unhorsed men on his horse and riding them out of harm’s way. Fortunately for Tom Price this setback at Karee was blamed on a lack of artillery support. It did not happen again. There were always at least two guns of J Battery of the RHA that accompanied the 4th M.I.Corps all the way to Pretoria and frequently were called into action at places like the Vet and Zand Rivers, Kroonstad and the crossing of the Vaal river into the Transvaal.

In the Transvaal the Victorians played a useful role in the attack on Johannesburg on the right flank at Elandsfontein where they seized rolling stock and had some difficult fighting among the mullock heaps near Germiston. They remained on the right flank in the attack on Pretoria. Tom Price led from the front at all times, and his men remarked on his courage and his deep concern for their welfare. In Pretoria he fell ill with ptomaine poisoning and spent over a week recuperating at Sammy Marks’ mansion. His men were at Pienaarspoort while Diamond Hill was being fought on 12 June 1900. He later joined them there. They took part in the drive east towards the Portuguese border and were frequently in the van. As they reached the mountainous areas beyond Machadodorp, campaigning became an ordeal. Tom Price, despite his age (and weight), utilised his four companies of Victorians skillfully and forever remained the firm disciplinarian, taking stern measures against going AWOL, looting, losing equipment, and a host of other minor indiscretions which many other unit commanders ignored. He was consistent and the men respected him for it. When finally Komatipoort was occupied on 28 September 1900 the Victorians were sent back to Pretoria where on October 12 they were informed that should they wish to return home they could do so – all of the 1st Contingent wanted to return and some 50 of the 2nd did too. Tom Price was among those who would return. 130 of the 2nd Victorians continued the campaign until April 1901.

Tom Price and his Victorians set sail on the Harlech Castle from Cape Town on the 3 November and reached Melbourne on the 4 December 1900.

Post-Boer War (1902-1911)

He had returned early from the Boer war (having served only 9 months) but he was needed to organize the military side of festivities for the opening of the first federal parliament in May 1901. On that occasion he received his CB for services in South Africa from the Duke of York (later George V) who had come to provide the royal touch to the opening ceremony. In March 1902 Tom Price was given a boost to his ego with his appointment to the position of acting Commandant of the Commonwealth Military Forces in Victoria. He married Emmeline Shadforth on the 30 April 1902. He was aged 59½ years and she was 23 years his junior. Mr and Mrs Price were transferred to Queensland in July 1902 and remained there for two years until his retirement in August 1904, at which point he returned to Victoria and bought a house at the seaside town of Warrnambool.

He continued to be involved in the activities of Rifle Associations and took a deep interest in all matters military. His health began to fail as he got into his 60s and on 3 July 1911 he died at Warrnambool, aged 68. He was buried with full military honours in the family vault at Melbourne’s General Cemetery.

References:

Winty Calder “Heroes and Gentlemen”, Jimaringle Publications, Canterbury, Victoria, 1985.
Robin Droogleever, “Colonel Tom’s Boys” (History of the 2VMR in the Boer War), due for publication 2012.
See also biography by Chris Clark on 'Thomas Caradoc Rose Price' in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU, 1988.

Robin Droogleaver 2010
 


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