The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Captain (later Major General) William Holmes

Major General William Holmes, CMG, DSO, MID, VD (1862-1917)

William Holmes was born in Sydney, New South Wales, on 12 December 1862, the son of Captain William Holmes of the New South Wales Military Forces, late 11th Foot, who had come to NSW in 1845. William Jnr.'s mother was Jane Hackett, whose father had also served in the 11th Foot.

Home was to be Victoria Barracks. He was educated at Paddington Public School. He was keen to become a soldier but his father felt that he had a better opportunity for advancement within the Public Service. He first worked as a clerk at the Sydney Mint then as a 16 year-old at the Department of Public Works. At age 24 he married Susan Ellen Green at St.Mathias Church, Paddington, on 24 August 1887. They had a son and a daughter. On 28 April 1888 Holmes was appointed chief clerk and paymaster of the newly-formed Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage in Sydney. He was promoted secretary and chief clerk in 1895.

He did not neglect his passion for the military. He joined the local militia at the age of 10 becoming a bugler with the 1st Infantry Regiment, New South Wales Military Forces. He was commissioned 2/Lieutenant in 1886, Lieutenant in 1890, Captain in 1894 and Major in 1900. In October 1899 Holmes volunteered for active service in the South African War and because competition to serve was fierce, he was prepared to accept a Lieutenancy with the New South Wales Infantry Contingent.

This was to be the only Infantry Company sent to the Boer War by New South Wales. It left Sydney on the Aberdeen on the 3 November 1899 and finally reached its destination, Cape Town on 7 December 1899. It was sent to Enslin on the western front, to join the Australian Regiment under Colonel John Hoad of Victoria. Here it was engaged in patrol work until 1 February 1900 when it was sent to Naauwpoort in the central Cape to be horsed, and to have a change of name to E Squadron, 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles. Holmes was promoted Captain and commander of E Squadron. He saw action at Rensburg, Houtnek, the Zand River, Kroonstad, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Diamond Hill, where he was wounded in the arm and the NSWMR performed well. He was in the forefront of his men and was noted for his daring and courage. He was mentioned-in-despatches 'for meritorious services performed' near Houtnek in April and May, and received a Distinguished Service Order for cumulative work with his unit. He was invalided home in August 1900 and received a shower of honours, being promoted brevet Lieutenant-Colonel and receiving the Colonial Auxiliary Forces' Officers Decoration (VD).

He took up work once more with the MBWS but continued his militia service. He became Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the 1st Australian Infantry Regiment 1902-11 and then Colonel, Commanding 6th Infantry Brigade from August 1912. His wife died in 1912. When war was declared with Germany in August 1914 he was chosen to command the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) which was sent as early as 19 August 1915 to seize German territory in the Pacific. The ANMEF consisted of 500 Royal Australian Naval reservists, a battalion of infantry and ancillary troops, raised in the first week of the war. There were many Boer War veterans among the troops.

Rabaul, in German New Guinea, was captured, and on 12 September 1914 Holmes accepted the German Governor's surrender of all possessions in the Pacific except Kiaochow in China and Samoa (which had been taken by a New Zealand force). The work of the ANMEF having been completed Holmes handed over the administration of German New Guinea to Colonel Sir Samuel Pethebridge in January 1915 and returned to Sydney.

On the 16 March he was given command of the 5th Brigade with the rank of Brigadier-General. This brigade left Australia in May 1915 and landed at Gallipoli in August 1915. Holmes was in command of the Russell's Top - Monash Valley area during the holding action in September. At the evacuation in December he was given temporary command of the 2nd Division. These were to be the last troops off Anzac.

After the evacuation he resumed command of 5th Brigade. He went to France with it in April 1916 and was in command at the battles of Pozieres and Flers. He regularly toured the front line. In January 1917 he was promoted Major-General and Commander of the 4th Division. In this role he saw the division through the battles of Bullecourt and Messines until he was mortally wounded by shell fire on 2 July 1917 while escorting WA Holman, the Premier of NSW, to Messines. He died on the way to a field hospital and was buried at the British cemetery near Armentieres. He had just been appointed a CMG and awarded the Russian Order of St Anne. He was survived by his son Captain Basil Holmes (later a Colonel in the Indian Army), who himself received a DSO as a Major with the 17th Battalion in France, and by his daughter.

The Melbourne Punch described him in 1915 as 'a dapper man, well-groomed, well-tailored, well-manicured His speech is accurately faultless. His manner is masterful but courteous. In everything he is meticulously correct. His moustache is symbolical of him. It is one of these faultless moustaches exactly suited to his face, beautifully curled, glossy, accurate. Neatness and precision are the keynotes of his character.'


  • B.H. Travers article on Holmes in the Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • General Holmes' AWM biography, especially for his portrait.
  • P.L. Murray's Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa.

Rob Droogleever - 2012

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