The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra
|Private Walter Parker|
Walter Parker the First Aboriginal Soldier to Die on Overseas Military Service
Walter Parker has recently been identified as the first known man of Aboriginal descent to die in overseas military service for Australia and the only such man to die in the Boer War.
Walter was born in Gingin, Western Australia on the 6 July 1874, the son of Joseph Mortimer, a stockman who lived in the same area and was the son of one of the first families to reside along the Gingin Brook. His mother was Mary Elizabeth Benyup, the daughter of Noongar woman Banyap [also known as Caroline] and Charles Brazely, a shearer, who had served in the 96th Regiment as William Brazely. Joseph Mortimer and Mary never married.
Although Walter's name was recorded on his birth registration as 'Walter Joseph Mortimer', he became known as Walter Parker when, four months after his birth, his mother Mary married John Selby Parker.
It is not known when or why Walter moved to Greenough although his father's sister, Sarah Mortimer, had married Thomas Clinch who managed and later owned the Greenough Mill, so perhaps it was the family connection that prompted his move there.
When war broke out in South Africa in 1899, Walter was one of the first to enlist in the Nation's support of the 'Mother Country'. However, the wave of patriotic fervour was high and with men who were serving and those who were past soldiers of the militia of the colonial forces being favoured, Walter was rejected from the 1st West Australian Contingent. It is also possible that his Indigenous ancestry may have precluded him from being accepted as in the case of Fred Mead. (The West Australian, 28 November 1901, p.5). There was no legislation preventing Indigenous men from serving their country at this time as was later the case, but it seemed it was often the decision and at the discretion of the enlisting officers at the time and place of recruitment.
Meanwhile, a fund was created to assist the families of those killed or serving in the South African War and towards the repatriation and the care of soldiers and their dependents. Donations to 'The Patriotic Fund' were collected at Greenough in March 1900 to which Walter Parker gave five shillings for the cause (The Daily News, 6 March 1900, p.4).
With the Federation of Australia on 1 January 1901, a National Defence Force was established and later that month an advertisement was published in The West Australian newspaper calling for volunteers to enlist in the 5th West Australian Mounted Infantry Contingent (The West Australian, 10 Jan.1901, p.4). Walter volunteered his services again, successfully enlisting in Coolgardie.
The volunteers, chosen mainly for their riding and shooting skills, were single men of good character and aged between twenty and thirty four. As a private, Walter's wage would have been 5 shillings per day. His regimental number was 140.
By mid-January, a camp had been established at Karrakatta where Walter and the other hopeful volunteers were given riding tests. Those who were successful then began mounted drill to prepare them for the conditions in Africa.
At the completion of their training a review of the troops of the 5th West Australian Contingent by His Excellency the Administrator, Sir Alexander Onslow was held on the Perth Esplanade on Saturday 2 March 1901 before a crowd of more than 3,000 spectators (The Western Mail, 9 March 1901, p. 39).
After demonstrations of their riding skills and several speeches, the men were formed into columns and then, led by the Headquarters Band, proceeded to make their way back to Karrakatta.
Before the departure from Perth, most of the 206 men of the 5th Contingent travelled by train to the city where they were entertained with a farewell dinner at Government House and an evening in the gardens attended by family and friends (The Enquirer and Commercial News, 8 March 1901, p.1)
Then, on 6 March 1901, the soldiers of the Fifth Contingent heard reveille sound at 0500 and by 0730 were on parade in readiness for the march to Fremantle. By 0930, they had reached South Quay where within three hours, they had boarded the troopship SS Devon with their kits, baggage and stores with 230 horses loaded on deck in their stalls.
The West Australian newspaper reported the departure from Fremantle:
At 1530 the Devon began to move from the wharf. Cheers were given by the soldiers on her and were answered from the wharf by the crowd, which by this time had grown to respectable dimensions. As the big vessel gathered way, the whistles of locomotives and tug-boats screamed farewells to which the Devon replied. A fluttering of handkerchiefs from the wharf, and a response fluttering from the troopers on the steamer, and the Devon was gone from the river. She anchored in Gage Roads whilst the captain fixed up his papers finally and sailed about 8 o'clock (The West Australian, 7 Mar 1901, p3).
The 5th Contingent arrived in Durban on 28 March and a month later amalgamated with the Western Australian 6th Contingent which had arrived in late April, forming one strong battalion under the command of Major JR Royston (Official records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa, Lieut.-Colonel P. L. Murray, R.A.A., 1911, p.418).
The combined 5th and 6th Contingents served in Eastern Transvaal, Natal and Orange Free State in the Major General FW Kitchener's Column and later with Colonel Campbel's, Colonel Benson's and Colonel Wing's Columns in Eastern Transvaal, engaging in several operations of Sir Bindon Blood - to the north of the Delagoa railway and in the Middelburg district in April and in the Ermelo-Bethel district in May of 1901 (ibid. p.419).
Throughout 1901, there were many conflicts and losses of life. On 15 May, three soldiers were killed at Grobelaar Recht, one being Lieutenant Anthony Alexander Forrest, aged 16 years and nephew to John Forrest, explorer and first Premier of Western Australia. The following day, Lieutenant FW Bell of the 6th showed tremendous courage which earned him a Victoria Cross, the first awarded to a Western Australian.
At the end of 1901 and first months of 1902, the combined Contingents were serving under General Bruce Hamilton in the Eastern Transvaal engaging with the enemy at Waterval River, Rolspruit and Roodepoort.
There was a cheering crowd of about 4,000 when the 5th and 6th Contingents arrived back in Australia together on the 29 April 1902 aboard the Colombian (Western Mail, 3 May 1902, p.21). Unfortunately, Walter was not among those who returned. He died of typhoid fever on the 22 January 1902 at Standerton, Mpumalanga in South Africa and was buried there in the Military Cemetery. Of the original strength of 221 men, six soldiers were killed or died of wounds and three died of disease. Do note that on the central plinth at Standerton Cemetery, see below, his name is recorded as "BARKER" as with most cast iron grave markers in South Africa, Walter's was stolen for scrap a long time ago.
Walter's service entitled him to receive the Queens South Africa Medal with clasps: Transvaal, Orange Free State, South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902.
The Geraldton Advertiser wrote of Walter Parker's death (Geraldton Advertiser, 14 February 1902, p.3).
Mr Walter Parker, who was well known here, has died in South Africa from fever. Poor Walter was anxiously waiting for his turn to go to South Africa. He wanted to go badly with the 1st WA Contingent but did not seem to be able to get on, and till recently. Walter was strongly advised to stay on the Greenough. Like a good many more young fellows, however, he was anxious to see the Boers.
Walter, the illegitimate son of my (Sue Mills') children's ancestor Mary, had remained a mystery for several years so it was rewarding when in late 2020, I stumbled on his service in the Boer War, not realizing at the time the significance of my find. Now with this fresh knowledge, Walter's service can now be recognised and commemorated along with his half-brother James Dickerson, who died from wounds received at Gallipoli. James was the only known Western Australian man of Aboriginal descent to die during the Gallipoli campaign. How heartbreaking for their mother, Mary, to lose two sons in a faraway country but how proud she must have been to know they were courageous in their willingness to serve their country.
Prior to the discovery of Walter's service in South Africa, The Australian War Memorial were aware of nine known Aboriginal soldiers who had fought in the Boer War and they had all returned to Australia. Consequently, Walter has become not just the only known Aboriginal soldier to die in the Boer War but the first known man of Aboriginal descent to have died in overseas military service in the history of Australia, a contribution and legacy that can now be honoured and commemorated in his home state of Western Australia and by the whole nation.
Sue Mills 2021
Note: re-formatted for the internet