Select Page

In 2017 the Military History & Heritage Victoria group received an approach from a South African academic seeking financial assistance for restoring and maintaining the gravesite of an Australian officer killed during the Boer War.  The grave was that of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Edward Ernest Umphelby, who went to South Africa in the early months of the war as a Special Service Officer and died of a wound received during the battle of Driefontein in March 1900.

Umphelby was significant because he was the most senior fatality suffered by the military forces from Australia who served during a conflict which saw the six colonies emerge as a new nation following Federation.  His grave had lain long forgotten and neglected on a remote stretch of African veldt (Afrikaans for ‘open grassland’) located about 80 kilometres west of Bloemfontein, once the capital of the Boer republic of Orange Free State.

When finally rediscovered in 1992 the grave was covered by thorn-shrub and dense bush almost three metres high, which when cleared away revealed that it was marked by a marble headstone that had been placed there by the Guild of Loyal Women sometime after the Boer War ended.  (The Guild was a public subscription society which paid for permanent stone markers to be erected on British graves across the Orange Free State.)

In 2010 the site containing Umphelby’s and surrounding other graves was found to have become overgrown to an extent even worse than originally encountered.  Seven years later it was further discovered that animals had burrowed into the graves and disturbed their contents, allowing skeletal remains to be pushed to the surface.  It was at this point that the South African directorate of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission became involved, leading to an appeal for an amount equivalent to A$3,500 to cover the expenses of maintaining the site as a war grave cemetery.


Left: marble marker found on Umphelby’s grave in 1992; right: restored field hospital grave site in 2000.

The donations sent to South Africa by MHHV earlier in 2018 brought the saga of Umphelby’s gravesite to a happy conclusion, but in historical terms this aspect is actually but one part of the story. No less interesting are the circumstances surrounding this officer’s wounding and death nearly 120 years ago.

In 1900 the 46-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Umphelby had completed just short of 20 years in the military forces of Victoria, having joined the militia garrison artillery in 1881 before being commissioned into the permanent artillery in March 1885.  Arriving in South Africa in December 1899 he was initially employed as a press censor in Cape Town before being attached as staff officer with a howitzer division of the Royal Artillery on the north-eastern frontier with Orange Free State.

Following the breaking of a Boer siege of Kimberley in February 1900, British forces advancing on Blemfontein were confronted with overcoming Boer resistance at Driefontein.  It was about 5.30 in the afternoon of Saturday, 10 March, that Umphelby found himself on a kopje (stony hill), sitting next to the howitzer division’s commander on an ant hill while watching through field glasses the performance of two batteries of guns pounding the Boer positions ahead of an infantry assault.


Lt Col C. E. E. Umphelby pictured c.1897; Driefontein battlefield, South Africa, in 2009.

Unluckily for Umphelby, the group of curious British observers caught the attention of a sharp-eyed Boer sniper.  A Mauser round fired at long range struck the Australian in the abdomen, just below his waist on the right side, and passed right through him.  He was given first aid and taken to a field hospital about 2.5 kilometres away.  It was here that he was seen overnight by an officer of the New South Wales Army Medical Corps, who recognised the gravity of Umphelby’s wound.

On the evening of the following day the British forces resumed their advance, leaving the wounded behind to continue receiving attention.  At this point Umphelby was loaded into a bullock wagon and moved to a new field hospital, at a farmhouse called Schaapplaats at Driefontein Nord, a distance of 6.5 kilometres away.  It was during this jolting journey that Umphelby began crying out in pain and vomited blood. That night he fell unconscious, and died just after 1 am on Monday, 12 March.  A married man, he left a widow and two daughters back in Australia.

On the evening of the same day, Umphelby’s corpse was buried a couple of hundred metres behind the farmhouse—the gravesite marked by a simple wooden cross erected by the NSWAMC.  A few weeks later the field hospital closed and the remaining wounded were  transferred to Bloemfontein.  Six weeks later, orders were issued for the fallen from the Driefontein engagement to also be removed into Bloemfontein.  It was even reported in the Australian press that these orders had been carried out, and Umphelby’s remains duly re-interred 80 kilometres away.  Only much later was it established that the transfer never happened, possibly because of the ongoing threat posed in the district from Boer resistance.

In a history of Australia’s involvement in the South African conflict published by the Australian War Memorial in 2002, historian Craig Wilcox presented a harrowing account of Umphelby’s last hours before his death.  Alleging that the unfortunate officer ‘lay unattended all night in the field hospital before being carried in a jolting wagon to a farmhouse where he was again ignored by [British Army] doctors’, Wilcox asserted that he might have lived had he been cared for by the medical team from New South Wales, ‘which was beginning to earn repute for running a “most excellent” field hospital.’

There is irony in these sorts of claims, because alleged failings of the British Army medical service during the Boer War were to give rise—even before the war was over—to a royal commission in London into the care of sick and wounded in South Africa.  Among those who gave evidence to the enquiry was another Special Service Officer from Australia, this time Major William Throsby Bridges from New South Wales (whose biography I published in 1979 as A Heritage of Spirit).

Also an artillery officer, Bridges had arrived in South Africa on 6 December 1899 on the troopship Aberdeen which also carried Umphelby, so it is entirely likely that the two men had met and knew each other.  Like Umphelby, Bridges too served on staff attachment to a brigade of Royal Horse Artillery—a role he filled until after British forces had succeeded in capturing Bloemfontein in April 1900.  It was during British occupation that Bridges became ill with enteric (typhoid) fever, his condition necessitating evacuation to Britain in May for further hospitalisation.

While recuperating in London, Bridges was called upon to give evidence to the royal commission about the relative merits of ox-wagons and horse-drawn ambulances when transporting casualties over rough terrain where few roads existed.  In his reported view, a soldier ‘would take great pains to avoid an ambulance if he could get an ox-wagon’.  On what is known of his horror experience, that is a view hardly likely to have been endorsed by Umphelby.