The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 
Trooper Wylie Nation

Wylie Nation - Soldier and Citizen

The Nation family arrived in South Australia from Leicester, England around 1840 and by 1850 had settled at Eastwood, now an inner suburb of Adelaide. In those days the area was sparsely populated and surrounded by dense bushland which was gradually cleared as the town of Adelaide grew.

It was natural that John Nation, Wylie's father, should choose to live near his family when he married Martha Boath about 1870.

The family home at No. 36 John Street, Eastwood still stands and it was here that Wylie, John and Martha's second son was born on 26th July, 1877. Today Eastwood is a most sought-after area in view of the close proximity to the central business district of Adelaide. Wylie attended Parkside Primary School and Way College (since closed). Wylie became an apprentice butcher after primary school.

Wylie was twenty-two when war broke out in South Africa. Although Wylie was a tall (187 cm) strong young man, a craving for adventure was not enough to earn him a place in the contingent sent by South Australia. At a time when pride in the British Empire was a way of life, the flood of volunteers greatly outnumbered the vacancies.

The first group of 125 officers and men had all seen previous service in the army or the militia and when they left for Cape Town late in 1899, it was generally thought that they would be lucky to get there before the war was over.

After the departure of the second contingent (which included "Breaker" Morant) the citizens of the various Australian colonies decided to send a third contingent, funded by public subscription. By then it was realised that the British infantry were unable to cope alone with the Boers who, being mounted, were able to elude their opponents with ease. The call went out for experienced bushmen that could match the Boers at riding, tracking and shooting.

The third contingent left early in 1900 and yet more volunteers continued to arrive at the recruiting depots, among them was Wylie Nation. In due course he passed the medical examination and the riding and shooting tests. It is not known how and when he learned these skills because they were by no means common among young men who lived in a major city at the turn of the century. The number of eager hopefuls who failed the tests indicated that Wylie was an unusually active person who loved the great outdoors.

The fourth contingent, South Australian Imperial Bushmen, consisted of 12 officers and 222 non-commissioned officers and men. As with the previous groups, they went into camp on the old Exhibition ground, where the University of Adelaide now stands. One month's training was considered sufficient and so by the end of April, 1900, the men were pronounced ready to face the Boers.

The fourth contingent of South Australians left Port Adelaide in the transport 'Manhattan' on 1st May, 1900, which had previously embarked 122 Tasmanians at Hobart. The ship called at Fremantle to collect 127 Western Australians and proceeded to Port Elizabeth, Cape Colony, where the troops disembarked on 19th June. The three contingents joined to form a composite regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J. Rowell of South Australia.

The men were quickly in action and by the 23 June were escorting a large supply convoy in the Orange Free State. On the morning of the 26th June, the Boers suddenly attacked but were driven off. The Australians formed the rearguard and were hotly pressed by the enemy all the way to their destination of Lindley which they reached on the 29th June. On the 3rd July the South Australians suffered their first casualties when recapturing several guns which the Boers had earlier secured in a furious attack.

There was no time to rest between actions and by 7th July the Australian Bushmen had taken part in a successful assault on the town of Bethlehem (O.F.S.) Pursuit of the fleeing enemy was a tiring and dangerous task. Long hours in the saddle every day combined with the ever-present danger from Boer marksmen would have satisfied any young man's lust for adventure.

Intelligence reports told of a concentration of Boer forces in a large valley near the Basutoland (now Lesotho) border. The valley was known as the Brandwater Basin and was surrounded by a range of high mountains called Wittebergen (White Mountains), from which the ensuing action was named. The British forces proceeded to garrison the several escape routes and thus trap the Boers. After a number of fierce actions in which the more resolute among the enemy escaped, the remainder surrendered. The tally of losses was considerable being 4,314 fighting Boers captured together with about 6,000 horses, almost two million rounds of small arms ammunition and large numbers of sheep and cattle. It was a bitter blow to the enemy and marked a point in their conduct of the war.

Several of the more aggressive Boer leaders had been successful in the hit-and-run tactics of guerilla warfare. Just when the war seemed over, the flames of resistance flared all over the two republics. The British authorities were congratulating themselves on a job well done; indeed, the first medals struck for issue to the troops were dated '1899-1900', and had to be hastily withdrawn. The Boers may have lost possession of their major towns but their forces were largely intact and spoiling to continue the fight.

Guerilla warfare calls for great skills in tracking, ambush and use of cover, precisely the attributes of the bushmen from the sparsely-populated colonies such as Australia. Increasingly, the British infantry were confined to garrison and line-of-communication duties where mobility was unnecessary. Thus the war became a series of hunts across the vast African plains chasing an elusive enemy who rarely stood at bay.

During the remainder of July and August the Australian Bushmen were occupied pursuing a Boer commando led by General Christiaan DeWet who was the outstanding guerilla fighter of the war. The troops took part in the relief of the small force of Australians besieged at Eland’s River who won undying fame for their gallant stand.

By November, 1900 the men were operating in the Transvaal where they ranged far and wide in pursuit of their foe. In this brief account it is not necessary to detail the various actions. However, the troops were almost constantly in the saddle during daylight and took part in a number of major and minor actions. The constant casualties suffered speaks more eloquently for their involvement than does any factual account.

In February and March of 1901, the Bushmen operated in the Cape Colony against small enemy commandos which were endeavouring to foment revolt in rural areas. From there the troops moved northwards through the Orange Free State and the Transvaal travelling thousands of kilometres over the hot dusty African veldt. They captured many prisoners, wagons and guns and earned the commendation of the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Kitchener.

On the 5 July, 1901 the contingent embarked in the transport 'Britannic' At East London, Cape Colony and, after discharging the Western Australians at Albany on the 20th, finally arrived at Port Adelaide on the 27th. The unit was disbanded within a few days and the men paid off.

For his services in the South African War, 151 Trooper Wylie Nation, 4th South Australian Imperial Bushmen was awarded the Queen's medal with four clasps, namely, 'Cape Colony', 'Transvaal', 'Wittebergen', 'South Africa 1901'. The last clasp was issued separately after the war ended in May, 1902. Three of his brothers also served in the war.

What he did from the end of July until early October is unclear but one suspects that he used the time to rest and let the memories of war fade from his mind. There was also the more serious problem of picking up the threads of his life and finding suitable work.

Some aspects of the military environment may have appealed to him or perhaps it was simply that the thought of indoor work had palled while he was away. In any event, he applied to join the South Australian Police and was duly accepted. So it was as Foot Constable No. 203 that Wylie Nation appeared on the streets of Adelaide on the 1st October, 1901. He was nicknamed "the long fellow" because he was quite tall.

Not all successful careers have begun smoothly. It was not long before Wylie earned the displeasure of officialdom when he failed to sweep the police library for which he was fined 2/6d. (25 cents). In March, 1902 that was a substantial sum and the lesson was not forgotten as Wylie was never again punished for failure to do his duty.

On the 14 September 1905 he married Mary Edith McCulloch, who lived at Walkerville, a suburb north of Adelaide. The Reverend Arthur M. Trengove celebrated the marriage at the Brighton Methodist Church.

Shortly afterwards, the newlyweds moved into their first home at number 130 Gouger Street, Adelaide which was not more than a brisk five minute walk from Police Headquarters.

It was almost five years before Wylie was promoted to Second Class Constable but thereafter he progressed steadily through the ranks. He was gifted with an extraordinary memory for faces and was often known to identify wanted criminals from among the crowds of people he passed while on foot patrol around Adelaide. His favourite spot was the corner of King William and Grenfell Streets in the city where he often stood and watched. No doubt his talent for observation helped his career so that by July 1916 he had been appointed First Class Detective. Police methods were more direct in those days and so on one occasion when Wylie found two men fighting in the main shopping area he pulled them apart with such force that they were hurled several metres in opposite directions.

Physical fitness is essential for police officers and Wylie Nation took his responsibilities seriously. He was a prominent member of the Torrens Rowing Club and from 1905 to 1912 was a member of the South Australian State crew. He was also renown as a billiards player.

During the First World War Detective Nation was sent overseas with the Australian Army on special investigations. When he left Egypt for Scotland Yard, he received a special commendation from the chief officer of the Egyptian police for his thorough work. His World War One records are remarkably silent on this and it is not clear whether he served in a military or civil capacity. In any event the work was clearly highly sensitive and confidential.

Back in Adelaide Wylie Nation was establishing an enviable reputation as a criminal investigator. One of his most famous successes was the Worturpa murder which took place in 1921 some one hundred kilometres from Copley in the far north of South Australia. After trailing camel tracks out in the desert to the remains of a fire, he sifted through the ashes and collected some charred bone fragments and a human tooth which he used as evidence to convict the accused man. This case was the first successful prosecution for murder in South Australia where the body of the victim was not produced. Wylie was made Sergeant, First Grade in November, 1921.

Other similar cases were brought to a satisfactory concussion and by July 1925, Wylie had risen to be Inspector, Second Class.

One of his biggest and most responsible investigations was the collecting of evidence for the Police Bribery Commission in 1926. The work was highly confidential and obviously required both moral courage and determination to complete. He also played a leading role in the suppression of illegal bookmakers about the time they were first required to be licensed and he personally led many raids on the haunts of known offenders.

In February, 1929, Wylie Nation was promoted to Inspector, First Class and placed in charge of the Criminal Investigation Branch of the South Australian Police. His salary was increased to £525 ($1050) per annum plus t130 ($260) allowances for special services, clothing and equipment. He was one of the most senior officers in the Police Force and respected widely for his firm but wise -and kind personality.

The Great Depression struck virtually everyone and Inspector Nation was no exception. Along with his fellow officers he had his salary cut by 10% as part of the Government's austerity measures.

Always an active man, Wylie Nation was a regular swimmer at the old Glenelg Baths in summer and he liked to sunbathe on the wooden deck on Sunday mornings. He was a member of the Loyal Rose of Sharon Lodge, Grand United Order of Odd fellows which met at Parkside. He was also active in the South African War Veterans' Association and the Returned Soldiers League (as it was then known).

By 1935, he had been appointed Acting Metropolitan superintendent of police. The rank was confirmed in 1936. His devoted public service was recognised by the award of the Silver jubilee medal in 1935.

During his long career with the South Australian police, Wylie Nation earned eight honourable mentions by the Commissioner of police; a record which has seldom been equalled.

It was early in 1937 that Wylie developed heart trouble, but, although he thought of retiring early, and had talked of a trip to Japan with his wife, typically he put his duty first and continued working. On Wednesday, 19th of May he had a heart attack at police Headquarters and was taken home. He returned to work but suffered a more serious attack on the 23rd. Although he was immediately taken to Memorial Hospital in North Adelaide and placed under the care of the police surgeon (Dr. AW. Welch), nothing could be done and he died on 24 May 1937.

The funeral took place at 3 pm on the 26 May and proceeded from his home in Wayville to the West Terrace Cemetery, the last resting place of many of south Australia’s pioneers. The procession was one of the largest police funerals held in Adelaide for many years and included over 250 members of the police force.

Abridged from a presentation to the South Australian Police Historical Association by Mr. Tony Rudd, South Australian Military Historical Society


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