The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 
Lieutenant Willoughby Vincent Dowling

Display of Remarkable Pluck

The Singleton "Argus" headlines tell the story of bitter conflict in a foreign country far from home. Our soldiers faced snow covered mountainous terrain, were seen as an occupying force and formed part of an international coalition attempting to subdue a highly mobile enemy which used guerrilla tactics against them. Sound familiar? Could be Afghanistan, but the place – South Africa. The time – 1900.

This story was first written by ‘Smiler’ Hales – an Australian War correspondent in his dispatch to the ‘Argus’ on the first of December, 1900. Other stories at the time concerned juvenile depravity in Singleton, 200 cases of beer poisoning, bush rangers at Walcha and local cricket games. But it is the story from Hales that concerned the Editor of the day. It concerned a local lad, one Lieutenant Dowling, who featured heroically in his dispatch.

It appears that Lt Dowling was something of a horseman locally and made his mark in the 1st Australian Horse, a mounted unit of thee New South Wales Military Forces sent over pre Federation to support the British. He was, wrote Hales, as ‘game a sample of humanity as ever threw a leg over a saddle, or loosed a rifle at a foe.’ Lt Dowling was to also figure prominently in dispatches from an action at a place called Norval’s Farm, outside Slingersfontein in the Cape Colony of central South Africa. The actions took place in a series of running skirmishes around a number of kopjes (or hills) and were also reported in brief by another war correspondent, by name of Banjo Patterson in the Sydney Morning herald on the 7 th March 1900.

A routine mounted patrol on the morning of 16 January by the Australians under Lt Dowling was caught by surprise by a large group of Boers and either captured or killed in a surprise ambush from kopjes in the area. A small number managed to escape by night from the area of the main skirmish and were able to return to the main Australian forward operating base at Slingersfontein from which a rescue was mounted next morning. Bloody scenes of bodies and bandages were the only evidence left by morning however as the Boers made off with any surviving Australians as prisoners. Unfortunately, no trace was found of some of the Australians until our intrepid correspondent Hales later found them in a hospital as fellow prisoners of war. Lt Dowling was amongst them and although badly wounded was in good spirits. His Boer ambushers told Hales of the astonishing fight Dowling had put up and had deliberately sought to save him from his wounds.

In finishing his dispatch, Hales notes the humanity of the Boers in saving these men and that is how ‘little Dowling, son of Australia, came to ‘stop a few’. He writes that he intends that the men of the sunny South land shall hear of it and his name shall be known round the gold hunters’ camp fires’.

The Boer War was the first ANZAC experience, some fourteen years before Gallipoli and it cost our countries hundreds of lives lost as well as thousands of horses, many from the Hunter region of this state. Some 23, 000 Australians and 6000 New Zealanders fought in this war and six Victoria Crosses were earned. Australian soldiers were highly regarded for their horsemanship and bush skills. This year, for the first time, the Boer War will be commemorated on May 30th and a memorial statue will be constructed in ANZAC parade in Canberra at a date to be announced.

Here in Singleton, a small ceremony will be conducted at the local park where Trooper Waddell is remembered from that conflict, on the morning of May 30th 2010. All descendents and families are invited to the ceremony which starts at 1130 hrs.

References:

  1. The Argus information on Lt Dowling in the Boer Hospital– microfilm data held at Singleton Library, from edition on Sat Dec 1st 1900.
  2. Information on the skirmish itself- from M. Chamberlain and R. Drooggleever, The War with Johnny Boer- Australians in the Boer War, 1899-1902, Aust Mil History Publications, Australia, 2003, pp. 117-120. [ISBN – 1-876439-02-5].
  3. Info on the Boer War Memorial Day – web site and info handouts from the National c’tee.

Max Wilson - 2010
 


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