The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Lieutenant (later Commander) William Colquhoun

William Jarvie Colquhoun - Naval Officer and Decorated Soldier of the Boer War

William Jarvie Colquhoun was born in Dumbartonshire Scotland 19 February 1859, following training in the merchant marine, he received his Mates ticket in 1884 and Masters ticket in 1885. By this time he had moved to Melbourne as an officer in the Union Steamship Company and had joined the Victorian Navy as a Gunnery Sub Lieutenant on 8 May 1888 and was promoted to Lieutenant on 30 June 1889. He did a tour of duty on HMS Royalist in 1890-91 and a gunnery course at Woolwich. He was promoted Lt Commander 8th February 1899. When the Boer War broke out he applied for service with the Victorian Contingent and received leave from his naval position. He was assigned as transport officer to the first Victorian contingent and classed as a Special Service Officer. He had been warned that there might not be a role for him in South Africa and his role with the Victorian contingent would finish on arrival. He received commendation for his work in the embarkation and disembarkation of the Victorian contingent and found initial employment in the transport office in Cape Town. From there he managed to get transferred to the naval brigade commanded by Captain Bearcroft and was attached to HMS Doris, the flagship of the South African station for administrative purposes. He was placed in charge of a naval 12 pounder gun which was part of a section of two guns commanded by Lt Dean RN. The naval 12 pounder gun was one of the few weapons which could match Boer artillery in terms of range and in the early months of the war, proved a salvation for the British forces in South Africa. To see action he had taken a post several below his rank level. He arrived in time at the front to join the batteries is shelling that the Magersfontein Ridge. Another Victorian Major G J Johnston wrote of him:

"Whenever Grieve and Umphelby and I had nothing particularly to do on the Modder we used to go up and have a yarn with Colquhoun and watching him shelling the Boers in their trenches at the foot of the Magersfontein Ridge. Every day in the cool the evening the Boers used to come out of their trenches for a stroll. Our gunners always had a go at them while their guns on the top of the Ridge would talk back. We three used to sit on the breastwork of a trench and chaff Colquhoun about his shooting although indeed he generally made very fair practice. Colquhoun was full of resources and I never knew him the beaten by any misadventure."

On the advance with General French to Kimberley, Colquhoun commanded one of the 12 pounder naval guns in the action on the Modder at Klip Drift. The gun Colquhoun was working, was hit by a shell which smashed one of the wheels to matchwood disabling the gun. Colquhoun found a Boer wagon that had fallen into their hands and when no one was looking he sneaked the wheel off the wagon and fitted onto his own gun at the end of 12 hours solid work and came triumphantly back into action again. The wheels and carriage originally had been hastily improvised at Simonstown as the naval 12 pounders and 4.7s had been taken off warships in Capetown.

The naval guns were in action quite early at Paardeburg participating in the shelling of Kitchener's Kopje and the bombardment of Cronje's lager. The day before the surrender both 12 pounder guns became immobilised with wheel troubles. Colquhoun was instructed to take both guns to the Simonstown Naval depot at Cape Town, a mission which would have taken some weeks, Colquhoun chose another approach. Ignoring his orders he took his guns to Kimberley, with Boer forces still in the area this was not without its hazards.

(Johnston: "Of course things might have turned out differently and the Boers had happened to capture the gun on its way to Kimberley, Colquhoun would have been court-martialed to a certainty.")

At Kimberley, he appealed to Cecil Rhodes for assistance. Rhodes placed De Beers engineering workshop at his disposal. The Australian scrounged around Kimberley and managed to find wheels that could be used. De Beers works completed two brand-new carriages for the guns. Major Johnston tells the story:

"Colquhoun did a pretty daring thing then, he deliberately disobeyed orders and instead of taking the gun by train down the Cape Town, he managed to travel at up to Kimberley which is only about 35 kilometres from the Modder. He had heard about the Kimberley foundry and where they had made the 'Long Cecil' and reached the place on Saturday afternoon he got the men to work at his gun all night on Saturday and straight on through Sunday, on Sunday night, on Monday morning the gun was as good as ever and got back to Paardeburg with it in three days instead of 3 weeks."

Colquhoun got both guns back to the army at Paardeburg in time to join the column about to set out for Bloemfontein. The naval guns took part in every action right up to the entry into Bloemfontein. Major Johnston again gives a story of his resourcefulness:

"He never bothered a bit about red tape and consequently he staggered some of the Imperial officers a good deal. At Bloemfontein for example his battery had lost a gun somewhere they sent Colquhoun to find it. After scouring the whole country for a week he found the missing gun on a truck in a siding at a small roadside station away south of Bloemfontein. How to get it back was the trouble because all the traffic was stopped except the hospital trains. But it happened that a special train consisting of just an engine in one carriage came up the line, bound for Bloemfontein and containing no less a personage than Sir Alfred Milner who was travelling in state to visit the captured capital. Colquhoun was entirely regardless of appearances he only knew he wanted to get his gun back to Bloemfontein. Sir Alfred Milner's special carriage stopped for a minute or two at the roadside station, this enterprising Colquhoun managed to hook his little truck behind it and the High Commissioner made his State entry into Bloemfontein dragging missing gun and the audacious Victorian behind him."

Some British officers complained that only an Australian could get away with this sort of behaviour.

At the end of his tour of duty he qualified for the Queens South African Medal (QSA) with clasps Paardeburg, Dreifontein Belfast, Relief of Kimberley and Cape Colony and was twice mentioned in dispatches. In early 1901 after his return to Victoria and now a member of the Commonwealth Naval Forces who was appointing acting in command of the Victorian naval forces. As a result of his exploits he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (London Gazette 6th November 1900) and appointed naval ADC to the Governor General of Australia. The resourcefulness shown by Colquhoun was praised by the first Lord of the Admiralty, Mr GJ Goshen, when he announced the decoration. There is some confusion as to how the DSO was presented with some accounts maintaining that it was presented by the Queen whilst others indicate that it was in fact presented in Hong Kong by the Rear Admiral, second in command of the China Station on 31st January 1901. The confusion might relate to the presentation the QSA although even here the records of awards of the QSA medal to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines (HMS Doris) indicated that his medal was presented by his Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).

In 1904 he was given leave and acted as a special naval correspondent for the London Times in the Russo- Japanese war. He was later promoted to Commander and was Naval Officer in Command of the Queensland Station. He died suddenly after a bout of food poisoning followed by a bout of what appeared to be influenza in Sydney on 13 August 1908.

He is commemorated on the Victorian Navy monument in Williamstown cemetery.


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