I have always believed that the first soldier to die overseas while serving in any Australian expeditionary force was a member of the colonial military contingent sent from New South Wales in 1885 to fight in Sudan. Though hardly an “honour” that anyone would wish to claim, that distinction went to 22-year-old Private Robert Weir, who died of dysentery on board a British hospital ship moored in Suakin harbour on 1 May. While the contingent suffered no battlefield deaths, before the Sudan business was over disease had claimed another six lives.
In recent decades there have been some questions raised about the accuracy of this understanding, because when the colony of Victoria lent its sole war-steamer named Victoria to aid British forces in prosecuting a war against New Zealand’s Maoris in 1860, this involvement had reportedly resulted in the death of one of its crewmen—again due to non-battle causes.
According to the story appearing in several published accounts, the casualty was an Able Seaman Henry Serjeant. He was supposedly a member of a party of 30 men from the Victoria which had been landed at New Plymouth on 9 July, for shore duty with an ad hoc naval brigade made up from detachments of Royal Marines and crewmen drawn from other British warships sent to the war-front from Australia. The Victorian sailors went into the Naval Brigade camp at Fort Niger, a strong-point protecting the eastern side of the besieged town.
After being accidentally shot in the foot by a Royal Marine during musketry training on the evening of 15 July (some versions state 13 July), Serjeant was taken to hospital where it was decided his wound necessitated amputation. The unfortunate victim developed complications including tetanus (better known back then as ‘lockjaw’) and died three weeks later, on 6 August, supposedly making him the first member of any Australian colonial military force to die on active service overseas.
Further delving reveals that this description of what happened is, in fact, confusing and misleading. Henry Serjeant (also shown spelt as ‘Sargent’) came not from the Victoria, but was actually a British crewman from the corvette HMS Pelorus, the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Australian Squadron. But he was accidentally shot by a sailor who was elsewhere identified (though not named) as being from the Victoria. The account in the Taranaki Herald which reported the incident stated not only that the mishap occurred during the evening of 15 (not 13) July, but that the weapon which discharged was ‘a breech-loading rifle’—a type with which the Victorian blue jackets were equipped, but not the RN men.
Writing later, Albert H. W. Battiscombe (senior lieutenant in Pelorus) said that the accident had resulted from one of Victoria’s men handling his weapon ‘carelessly’, causing the weapon to ‘explode’ and put a round through Henry Sargent’s foot, ‘breaking the bone’. The true facts behind the incident gave rise to considerable ill-feeling between the Victoria’s sailors and the men from the imperial warships, with tempers being further fueled by jealousy over the better equipment, pay and conditions enjoyed by the colonials.
Major-General Sir Thomas Pratt and troops of the British 40th Regiment are ferried ashore in lighters at New Plymouth from the steam sloop HMCSS Victoria, 3 August 1860 (painting by Edwin Harris)
Concern about the possibility of a breakdown of discipline between the two groups caused the lieutenant in charge of Victoria’s contingent to take ten of his men back to their ship on 3 August, leaving the other twenty ashore with a midshipman in charge. This precaution proved to be timely, given that Sargent died just three days later. He was buried with full military honours in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Anglican Church, now called the Taranaki Cathedral Church of St.Mary.
These days a small wooden cross, now rotted, marks the British seaman’s actual grave, while a memorial headstone located nearby leaves no doubt that he came from the crew of HMS Pelorus and not the Victoria. Also confirming that Serjeant (or Sargent) was not a crewman in Victoria is the ship’s crew list for New Zealand 1860-61 published in the 2005 book by Ian MacFarlane and Neil Smith, Victoria and Australia’s First War.
On that basis, it would seem certain that Private Robert Weir’s claims to have been the first member of an official Australian colonial military force to die on active service overseas still remain intact.