The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 
Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Walter Kari-Davies MID

Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Walter Karri Davies 4xMID Maverick Uitlander as well as Boer War unit commander

Walter Karri Davies was born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1861. He was educated at North Adelaide Grammar School and later at Scots College, Melbourne. He and his family were of the Jewish religion and he was immensely proud of this. The Boer government discriminated against the Jewish and Catholic religions in particular.

Later still his family moved to Western Australia and he joined the family business, M.C. Davies, Karri and Jarrah Company, who were developing timber markets using the timbers of southern Western Australia. It was in this connection that Walter Davies moved to South Africa to market these timbers for mine work (especially pit props) and railway sleepers. He was centred on the boomtown of Johannesburg and early on, came to notice Cecil Rhodes. They remained friends from then on. As the Boers discriminated against Uitlanders as well as those who were of the Jewish religion it is no surprise that he became an ardent supporter of reform. He took a leading part in the Johannesburg Reform Movement in support of Uitlanders rights. As such he became a leader of the failed Jamison raid in 1895. He was jailed for two years, fined £2000 and banished for three years by the Transvaal government. The Western Australian government publicly expressed disquiet and concern about the actions of the Transvaal government and is believed to have made representations on his behalf. Whether this had any effect is not clear but the Transvaal government offered to suspend the jail sentences of the raiders on condition that they publically apologised. Both Davies and one of his fellow conspirators Wools-Sampson refused and Davies spent 18 months in jail before being released. They had become martyrs and the Transvaal took advantage of an illness to release him on compassionate grounds. After his release he contracted enteric fever and whilst recovering visited both England and Australia. On his visit here he was reluctant to talk to the press of his experiences on the raid saying “no good in could be served by making reference to it”.

It was in South Africa that he gained the nickname ‘Karri’ after his persistent championing of that Western Australian hardwood. He adopted this nickname eventually as part of his surname although it is not clear that this was done in any formal sense. In any event by the Boer War, Karri Davies had become his surname.

As the war loomed in 1899, the British government encouraged the formation of irregular units from Uitlanders evacuating from Johannesburg including a number of Australians. Karri Davies and Wools-Sampson were amongst those who helped raise a unit, the Imperial Light Horse. Karri Davies was appointed major and second in command of the Imperial Light Horse. He and the others had used their own money to cover the costs of raising the unit.

The Imperial Light Horse was one of the premier irregular units in the Boer War and it is the only one of those irregular units to be incorporated into today's modern South African Army as the Light Horse Regiment. Karri Davies remained a controversial figure even during the war, he was mentioned in dispatches on four occasions.

The first action in which Karri-Davies particularly distinguished himself for bravery took place on a dark, dank morning on 2 October, 1899, when a column moved out from Ladysmith under the command of Lieutenant General Sir John French, his Chief of Staff being Colonel Douglas Haig. The column was composed of the Imperial Light Horse (live squadrons), the Natal Mounted Volunteers and the Natal Naval Volunteer Artillery. Colonel Scott Chisholm commanded the Imperial Light Horse, of which A squadron had been sent to Escourt, where it had remained under its own Captain Doveton. Major Woolls-Sampson had under his command B and C squadrons and Karri-Davies D, E and F squadrons. Moving in the direction of Elandslaagte, the scouts on the right flank got in touch with a body of Boers, with whom a few shots were ex- changed. Keeping the road the main column reached the high ground over- looking Elandslaagte station, where a halt was called. Presently from the right front a gun boomed. The Natal miniature guns replied, but could not reach the Boer position which was out of range. The advance guard was under Woolls-Samp- son, the flanks and rearguard under Karri-Davies. A critical situation developed. E squadron, under Captain Knapp, had been temporarily placed under Woolls- Sampson, and was being used as a scouting unit ahead of the advance guard. Knapp had been ordered right ahead, with a view to getting round the Boer flank. This order had been given before it was discovered that the Boer guns outranged the British. Having unsuitable guns, French decided to retire towards Ladysmith and pick up the R.H.A. guns and a larger force he had signaled for to be sent from Ladysmith to reinforce the column, as he found Elandslaagte very strongly held by entrenched Boers. This change of programme at once changed Knapp's squadron from advance to rear guard, without his knowing it, as he had got out of touch with the main column. Woolls-Sampson had to go ahead with his advance guard, so explained the situation to Karri-Davies, who at once saw his E Squadron cut off and in danger of annihilation by the Boers, who had ridden down from the other side of the Elandslaagte position. By now the Boers were sending a heavy fire into Knapp's squadron and endeavouring to get between him and the main column. Karri-Davies despatched a sergeant and trooper with orders to gallop to Knapp, ordering him instantly to fall back on the main column. Unfortunately the sergeant and his companion were cut off by the Boers, and the trooper wounded, but managed to return by making a wide detour. Karri-Davies, sitting on his horse on the high ground, watched the whole proceedings through his glasses. He saw Knapp gradually disappearing with his squadron round the Elandslaagte position in total ignorance that the column had retired and the Boers were cutting him off. Putting his spurs to his horse, Karri- Davies dashed down the hill, regardless of the heavy Boer fire, and reached Knapp, whom he brought back to the main column, with his squadron by making a wide detour in the face of opposition from the Boers. Knapp stated in his report that, had it not been for the prompt action of Major Karri-Davies, he, with E Squadron, would have been cut up.

Some reports suggest that he was recommended for a Victoria Cross for this action but personally approached Sir John French to ensure that the recommendation was not sent forward. He did however receive a Mentioned in Dispatches.

It was during sortie operations in the Long Valley under the command of Major General Brocklehurst, the following day that some modern pundits have claimed that poor decisions by Karri Davies now in command of the Imperial Light Horse led directly to the death of Lt Arthur Brabant. No reasonable evidence exists to support such a contention and it seems to suggest that Karri Davies was a free agent during that operation. The truth is that Arthur Brabant’s B Squadron Imperial Light Horse was the unit most in touch with the enemy as the battle developed.

On 6 January 1900, during the attack on Wagon Hill, Ladysmith, which was an attempt by Sir George White to ease pressure on the town, Karri Davies was severely wounded. His actions that day had been again Mentioned in Dispatches. Following his recovery and the Relief of Ladysmith, the Imperial Light Horse joined British columns attempting to relieve Mafeking in Cape Colony. With the road open, Karri Davies and six of his troopers became the first British troops to arrive in Mafeking at 3:30 AM, 17 April 1900. They had been sent in to inform the garrison of the approach of the relief columns. He was again Mentioned in Dispatches for a third time in Lord Roberts final dispatch in April of 1901 and yet again in Lord Kitchener's dispatches of 23rd of June 1902. In April 1901 he was gazetted as a Companion of the Bath (CB), but in a later Gazette,

"e;His Majesty the King has accepted Major W Karri Davies resignation of a companion of the Bath – with which he was honoured in April last – in accordance with that gentleman's expressed wish to serve his Majesty with out reward."e;

After the war he was awarded the QSA with clasps including Defence of Ladysmith and Relief of Mafeking and the KSA. He was four times Mentioned in Despatches. He was awarded the CB in the honours list but sought permission to decline the award. Various stories have circulated about this some of them highly fanciful. His own reasons as reported in newspapers at the time was simply that it was a war that had to be fought to establish people’s rights and he was honored to do so for his King and Country but he had good friends on the Boer side so he would not profit in anyway either through money (he served without pay), advancement in rank or receive honours.

One well-known story has Karri Davies bursting into a farmhouse quite unarmed from which Boers were firing, calling on them to surrender. At the time same time as the Boers pointed their rifles at him, someone called out “Don't shoot its Mr Davies” the Boers lowered their rifles, they were people he had known in Johannesburg. Shortly afterwards his troopers caught up with him in the Boers formally surrendered.

When the First World War broke out he again offered his services. Now into his 50s and still carrying the effects of war wounds he was appointed Provost Marshall in San Francisco, it is believed with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Karri Davies owned land on the south coast of Natal which later became the seaside resort of Karridene. In 1902 he had an architect, Herbert Baker design house for him ‘Outspan’ at 17 Rock Ridge Road (originally called ‘Karri’ road) Johannesburg, which is often cited as a heritage dwelling today.

He died in London 29 November 1926 in a London nursing home.

David Deasey 2013


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