As Australians, we all revere ANZAC Day (as well we should), but remembering those South Australians who fought in the Boer War (perhaps the ‘dress rehearsal’ for the Great War to come 14 years later?) has sadly faded in our memories.
One of the loneliest (and perhaps most poignant) memorials in South Australia to our fallen heroes of that conflict stands defiantly alongside the Williamstown Memorial Hall, Williamstown being the south-eastern gateway to the Barossa.
It records the loss of one PRIVATE WILLIAM EDWIN SMITH, who lost his life at Arundel, South Africa, on February 21, 1902.
So what do we know about William Smith? Not much, sadly. He was not a ‘permanent’ resident of Williamstown before he left for war, as the memorial notes that he was “...once a resident of Williamstown...”
This is confirmed in a report in The Advertiser of 2 March 1900, when his death was reported. ”Quite a gloom was cast over this neighbourhood on Monday last when the news was received of the death of Private W. E. Smith, who was a member of the first contingent, and was killed at Arundel in South Africa. Private Smith lived here for several years, and was highly respected by all who knew him. He was a strong, well built young man, a good bicycle rider, and horseman, and just the sort of man to uphold the honour of Australia in the country where he met his death....”
William Smith must have made his mark on the town and the region - to the extent that his bravery was commemorated in “... Italian marble, and, with the base, stands 10 feet high, .... the work of Mr. G. E. Morgan, of the Victoria Square, W. Monumental Works, and in execution and design is a real work of art.” (Petersburg Times, SA, 10 August 1900). The Memorial was erected at a cost of £38 - a small fortune in its day.
As a mark of respect with which the Williamstown community held him, they turned out in large numbers for the unveiling of the Memorial on Monday 30 July, 1900. The Advertiser reported 3 days later...”The ceremony of unveiling took place at 4 o'clock. Showers of rain fell during the day and made the ground wet and muddy, but it kept fine overhead during the ceremony. The monument, which was covered with the Union Jack, was unveiled by Mrs. J. Warren in the presence of a large concourse of people. While the flag was being drawn up the school children, under the leadership of Mr. Miller, the head teacher, sang the National Anthem, after which Mr. R. Ross, chairman of the District Council of Mount Crawford, gave an appropriate address.”
The Boer War was fought over British aspirations to gain control over South African mineral wealth, and we South Australians sent our best young men to fight for the ‘motherland’. Private Smith was one of 127 South Australians who formed the very first contingent to travel to South Africa.
Around 16,000 Australians volunteered to fight against the Dutch-Afrikaner (or Boers) from 1899 to 1902: It remains Australia's third-worst conflict in terms of casualties. In the end, the war was reported to be a ‘guerrilla action’ fought in ways similar to that of the Vietnam war. A total of 606 Australians died in the two-and-a-half years in South Africa, more than the number of casualties in Vietnam over 10 years.
Private Smith died at Arundel in South Africa, where British General Clements drew his forces back, after severe fighting at Naauwpoort in the last three weeks of February 1900. During the movement, which commenced at midnight, 13/14 February, the South Australians formed the rearguard, a position of honour and great responsibility, seeing that General Clements' men had been without rest or sleep for nearly forty-eight hours. Notwithstanding these great exertions, Captain Lascelles, of the South Australians, on arriving in the neighbourhood of Arundel, went back with a mixed body of volunteers, mostly Australians, to endeavour to bring in or assist some infantry who had been left behind. It was in this action we assume, Private Smith on his mount took that fatal bullet which took his life in a far-off land, defending British interests. Competent judges have said that the withdrawal of the force to Arundel was one of the best-managed operations undertaken during the campaign.
And so, when you cyclists next visit Williamstown, forego your latté and take a moment to visit William Smith’s memorial - a permanent reminder of a good Williamstown citizen, ‘a good bicycle rider’... a warrior and a hero.
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