Gunner, “B” Battery, Natal Field Artillery – Bambatha Rebellion of 1906
Private, 6th S.A.I. (South African Infantry)
Private, 10th S.A. Horse (South African Horse) – German East Africa
- Natal Medal with 1906 clasp to Gnr. W.R. Woodburn, B Battery, N.F.A.
- British War Medal to Pte. W.R. Woodburn, 10th S.A.H.
- Victory Medal to Pte. W.R. Woodburn, 10th S.A.H.
William Woodburn was born in Barberton in the Eastern Transvaal on 16 November 1887 the son of William Woodburn, a Scot, and his wife Agnes Emily Lydia Woodburn, born Upton. The couple had married in the Presbyterian Church in Field Street, Durban on 29 April 1885. Mr Woodburn was a Foreman of Works by occupation deciding after his marriage to take his bride to Barberton which was still in the clutches of a gold rush and a town which was very much reminiscent of the Wild West.
At some point, it can be imagined after he had completed whatever schooling he was exposed to, Woodburn ventured south finding himself in Durban in the Colony of Natal from whence his parents had come. Natal after the Boer War was in a precarious state financially and the Colonial Government hit upon a scheme to increase their revenue by imposing a Hut Tax of £1 on the head of every black male of 18 years and over. As simplistic as this sounded it was much met by vehement opposition in some quarters and silent acquiescence in others.
One petty chief in particular with the name of Bambatha of the Zondi clan near Greytown was violently opposed to the imposition of this tax as further proof of the white man’s yoke around his peoples’ neck. He went about the land fomenting open disobedience and encouraging rebellion among the Zulu people. Early in 1906 matters came to a head when two Natal Policeman were murdered whilst assisting a Magistrate with the collection of this tax.
Matters spiralled rapidly out of control and the Militia was called out to suppress the rebellion. After an initial scare they were disbanded but the problem and Bambatha refused to go away and they were called out once more.
Woodburn had joined the ranks of “B” Battery of the Natal Field Artillery and he was soon called into action. The Colonial forces chased Bambatha into a deeply forested wood known as Mome Gorge near Nkandla in Zululand and, once they had him cornered, unleashed a furious barrage of both rifle, machine gun and cannon fire on the thousands of Zulu warriors trapped below. “B” Battery was in the thick of things and there is every reason to believe that Woodburn, as a Gunner on one of the guns, would have played his part. The rebellion ended with the capture and decapitation of Bambatha - for his efforts Woodburn, all of 19 years of age, received the Natal or “Bambatha” Medal with the 1906 clasp.
The troubles in Natal over Woodburn, at some point, turned his attention to the Witwatersrand. Already exposed to the world of gold and the mining thereof he joined the employ of the Chamber of Mines in Johannesburg which is where he was to be found with the outbreak of the Great War on 4 August 1914. A Miller by trade it wasn’t until the war had advanced into its second year that he opted to enlist for service. This he did by completing the Attestation Papers for service in German East Africa at Potchefstroom on 9 December 1915. Claiming that all three were dependant on him he provided the names of both parents as well as his brother Donald of Regent’s Park, Klip Riversberg, Johannesburg as his next of kin. He confirmed that he had served in the N.F.A. in the rebellion and that he was unmarried.
Having been passed as Fit by the Doctor Woodburn was assigned no. 4548 and the rank of Private with the 6th South African Infantry. The 6th S.A.I. was comprised mainly of Natal men many who had fought under the banner of either the Natal Mounted Rifles or the Durban Light Infantry in the recent German South West campaign.
Once they had arrived in German East Africa Woodburn and his comrades were in the field. Conditions were far from ideal and almost all personnel of European descent succumbed to the ravages of malaria, black water fever or any number of other pestilences abounding in this tropical back water. The 6th S.A.I. were in the thick of it in campaigns like Salaita where they incurred quite a number of casualties. Woodburn was with the Machine Gun section but already his health was beginning to suffer – on 2 February 1916 he was admitted to the Field Ambulance at Mbuyuni with an undisclosed (N.Y.D.) complaint. From there he was transferred to the Base Hospital at Voi on 4 February. The cause of his ailment was then diagnosed as appendicitis – obviously a mild case as he continued on in the field only to be struck down by dysentery at Muthagia on 13 February. On 22 February he was transferred to Nairobi but his health continued to deteriorate necessitating his removal to the Union aboard the Hospital Ship “Ebani” which docked in Durban harbour on 3 May 1916.
For Woodburn the war was almost over – he was discharged at Durban as being Medically Unfit on 19 June 1916. With his Military Character adjudged to be “Good” he was credited with 206 days service. But he was made of sterner stuff – now all of 29 years he re-attested for service completing the Attestation Papers at Roberts Heights on 16 August 1916 for re-entry into German East Africa – this time with the 10th South African Horse. His papers confirmed his previous service claiming, on this occasion, that he was an Amalgamator by trade. Physically he was described as being 5 feet 9 ½ inches in height, weighing 145 pounds and with a fair complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair. As proof that his troublesome appendix had been removed he sported an appendix scar by way of distinguishing characteristics.
Assigned no. 607 and the rank of Trooper Woodburn headed for East Africa once more on 20 August 1917 aboard the H.M.T. “Ngoma”. Sadly and predictably the result was the same as before – disease assailed him and on Christmas Day 1917 he disembarked at Durban ex H.M.T. “Coronia” being admitted to No. 3 Convalescence Hospital riddled with Malaria. On 31 January 1918 he was transferred to the Convalescence Hospital in Pietermaritzburg and from then on it was an uphill struggle for him being admitted to various hospitals including the Wanderers in Johannesburg until finally he was discharged on 21 May 1918 Permanently Unfit for Tropical Service Temporarily Unfit for non-tropical service. For Woodburn the great adventure was over and he returned to his family in Johannesburg having earned the British War Medal and Victory Medal for his efforts.
On this occasion he was discharged with a Military Character of Very Good despite having been punished for breaking out of hospital at one point. He was also credited with service of 219 days.
Nothing further was heard from or about Woodburn until he passed away in Hillbrow, Johannesburg on 14 October 1972 at the age of 85. His address at the time was 53 Renette Mansions, 52 Plein Street. He was survived by his wife Constance Agnes Woodburn whom he had married many years before at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. Depressingly he had almost nothing of value to his name – the inventory of his belongings making mention of “quantity of used clothing (no commercial value); 1 stainless steel wristwatch and R 105 in a United Building Society Savings book.
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