Lieutenant, Natal Services Corps – Bambatha Rebellion of 1906
- Natal Medal (Bambatha Rebellion) with 1906 clasp to Lt. E. Brace, Natal Service Corps
I never cease to marvel at how the most mundane of medals can mask the most interesting of individuals. Edgar Brace was such a man. Born on 12 August 1875 in Ballarat East in the state of Victoria, Australia he was the son of John Webb Brace and his wife Jane, born Clayton.
Having completed his schooling Brace applied himself to the profession of an Accountant and it was in this capacity that we find him in January 1901 when, at the age of 26, he completed the Attestation papers at Melbourne for service with the 5th Mounted Rifles (Victorian) in the Anglo Boer War.
By this time the conflict, in far-away South Africa, had been raging for fourteen months with no end in sight despite the best efforts of the new Commander in Chief of the British Forces – Lord Kitchener. The call had gone out to the far corners of the Empire for able-bodied men to join the fight against the surly Boer and Australia’s sons had responded.
Claiming his mother, Jane Brace of 34 The Avenue, Balaclava as his next of kin Brace was, physically, 5 feet 10 inches tall and a member of the Church of England. Having been granted a commission as a Lieutenant – Brace sailed for South Africa and the front with his contingent aboard the “Orient” on 15 February 1901.
That the Australians played an important role in the final vanquishing of the Boers cannot be disputed but their military campaign was almost defined by one single action – that of Wilmansrust. Much has been written about this incident, an incident which occasioned great distress among Australians at the time and for many years thereafter. But what was this all about?
In June the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles contingent was part of a column at Middelburg in eastern Transvaal commanded by Major General S. Beatson, a distinguished Indian army cavalry officer and a stern disciplinarian. Under his direction the Victorians were split into two wings. The left wing, consisting of companies E, F, G and H, along with two 'pom-poms' (one pounder automatic maxim guns) was under the command of a British officer, Major Morris of the Royal Field Artillery who had recently arrived in South Africa from India and was still learning how to combat the Boers. The senior Victorian officer was Major William McKnight of Cheltenham.
Major Morris, with sufficient rations for two days, had been instructed to make a sweep to the south with his 350 strong flying force, and on the afternoon of 12 June 1901 they camped on a farm named Wilmansrust, thirty two kilometres south of Middelburg in South Africa's central Transvaal. Major Morris personally chose the position of each picquet, and in accordance with King's Regulations ordered rifles to be stacked away from the bell tents where the soldiers were to sleep. Trooper White of Caulfield and a member of H Company wrote in his letter home that they had been camped for about two hours when three Boers approached. When they were in range they were forced off by fire from the pom-poms but this enabled them to establish the position of the guns. It was about quarter past eight when the Boers returned in strength.
Their first volley stampeded the horses in H Squadron lines through the camp. The Boers were dressed in captured khaki uniforms and turned up hats. It was impossible to tell friend from foe by the light of dying campfires.
Trooper Chas Redstone of Cheltenham, a member of the picket on the perimeter of the camp, in his letter printed in the Brighton Southern Cross, described the arrival of the Boers. We did not expect anything unusual. The Boers crept up and were lying within 30 yards (30 metres) of the camp for twenty minutes before they attacked. A lot of our men were cooking in front of the fire; some had gone to bed because we had to start out in the morning at half-past three. At quarter to eight the Boers put the first volley in and then they rushed the camp, shooting as fast as they could pull their triggers, never attempting to put the rifles to their shoulders. .. They ran along the line of saddles and shot men in their beds."
Trooper White explained that the fight was short and deadly. The Boers had departed from the camp site within two hours of the first shots being fired.
They took with them the two pom-poms and all the ammunition and food they could find as well as what could be scavenged from the dead. "One of them took a purse from me and a few shillings that was in it, all that I had left from my last pay, and asked me what sized boots I took? I told him 'fives' and he said that he wanted a pair of 'sixes' as his were worn out," wrote White.
"They took Trooper Redstone's watch and chain and belt with £2 in it but, as he said, "he was glad to get away with his life." He went on to describe the predicament of one of the attackers, "One of the Boer's shot himself through the foot. He was taking a badge off one of our fellows and rested his rifle on his foot, muzzle down, when it went off blowing a few of his toes off. I wish it had been his head. I might say that half of them that attacked us were not Boers; a lot were Americans, Irish and other nationalities, they could all speak good English."
When the attackers withdrew with their booty the remaining men of the Fifth Contingent attended to the wounded as best they could, as their doctor, Dr Palmer, had been killed in the initial attack. Redstone said it was a bitterly cold night as a group of them nestled amongst the rock about 1 kilometre from their original camp. At the break of dawn about half a dozen Boers approached to muster some cattle. When challenged they wheeled their horses and retreated but fire from the Victorian troopers killed one Boer and wounded another. The dead Boer was the son of General Grobler. When the body was searched it was found to carry only twopence, a bible, and a lot of blood stained papers which were left untouched.
One hour later a large body of Boers returned but retreated with the arrival of the relief group who had been camped seven miles away. Lance Corporal Arthur Ruddle was with the right wing of the Fifth Contingent when it arrived at the sickening scene of the disaster that morning. He likened it to a slaughter house not a battlefield. Trooper White wrote that the ambulance came up for the wounded and then they set to work to bury the dead. "We dug one big hole about six feet deep and twenty feet long, as we had eighteen killed in all, and we buried them all in the one hole, put stones on top and a fence around" before marching off to join the right wing.
Victorian casualties were heavy. Killed was Regimental Surgeon Herbert Palmer of Ballarat, and 18 NCOs and men. Five officers and 36 NCOs and men were wounded.
In the week after the Wilmansrust engagement, the column remained in the vicinity.
For some reason General Beatson was deeply, disturbed about the Wilmansrust action. Until then he had seemed keenly impressed with the Victorians. Now, all that had changed. He was reported to have angrily stated during a march that week:
"I tell you what I think. The Australians are a damned fat, round shouldered, useless crowd of wasters . . . In my opinion they are a lot of white-livered curs . . . You can add dogs too"
The facts were very different, with Victorian mounted troops being generally acknowledged as formidable opponents to the Boer 'Commandos', and terrifying to them in some engagements. General Beatson, however, later found a group of Victorians slaughtering pigs for food. He is said to have addressed them as follows:
"Yes, that's about what you are good for. When the Dutchmen came the other night, you didn't fix bayonets and charge them, but you go for something that can't hit back".
The column returned to Middelburg depot later that week. There was by then a state of mutual contempt between the General and the Victorians.
On 7 July, when the Victorians were ordered out on another operation. Trooper James Steele was overheard by nearby British officers to say: "It will be better for the men to be shot than to go out with a man who called them white-livered curs". For this apparent refusal to do as they were ordered, Steele and troopers Arthur Richards and Herbert Parry were arrested, given a summary court-martial and sentenced to death. British supreme commander Lord Kitchener intervened. He commuted the sentences (Steele to do ten years gaol, the others to do one year each).
Controversy continued when a speech in the new Federal Parliament lingered on how the aftermath of Wilmansrust was a disgraceful way to treat men who had volunteered to go to the Boer War. A court of enquiry earlier had begun sittings three days after the disaster, at Uitgedacht.
In another extraordinary outburst British General Sir Bindon Blood mentioned the "Chicken-hearted behaviour of the officers and men generally of the Victorian Mounted Rifles on this occasion. We must remember that they were all a lot of recruits together, and that their behaviour was only what was to be expected in the circumstances".
Since it was acknowledged that the picquets were insufficient and wrongly placed (the responsibility of Major Morris who had personally selected their positions), the comments of Sir Bindon Blood and General Beatson before him were grave slurs on the Victorians. Major William McKnight, the CO of the 5VMR Left Wing at Wilmansrust, called General Beatson to account for his "gross insults". A belated apology by the General was curtly refused by McKnight. The Court of Enquiry, meanwhile, had censured British Artillery Major Morris.
Melbourne newspapers heaped criticism on General Beatson and his reported remarks. But it took a petition to King Edward VII, and the personal representations of the Australian Prime Minister Edmund Barton and prominent Australians then living in London, to secure the release of the prisoners from an English gaol. They were returned to South Africa and from there to Victoria. Prime Minister Barton later tabled a report on Wilmansrust by Victorian Major W. McKnight, who had been present during the engagement. Because the convictions of troopers Steele, Parry and Richards had by then been quashed, the complete report was never made public.
When the 5th VMR departed from South Africa, Lord Kitchener sent the CO this telegram:
"11 March 1902, Cape Town,
Please Convey to your Australians my warm appreciation of their gallant and arduous service in this country. In the name of the Army in South Africa, I wish them good luck and God speed."
Brace, who was with “G” Company of the Left Wing under Major Morris was one of the five officers severely wounded.
After the war was over on 31 May 1902 Brace elected to say behind in South Africa seeking employment with the Transvaal Government but this didn’t appear to last as he boarded the “Nineveh” for the return trip home to Australia on 12 September 1902 disembarking at Melbourne on 3 October of that year. For his efforts he was awarded the Queens Medal with clasps Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Transvaal and South Africa 1901 and 1902. The whereabouts of this medal are unknown.
Back in his old haunts Brace met and married Fran Bradford Oriel Treacy in 1903. The couple, no doubt at the insistence of Brace, returned to South Africa shortly thereafter to make a life for themselves. Edgar Brace joined the ranks of the Natal Service Corps – a unit that was to enjoy only a short life – soon after his arrival. It was as a Lieutenant with them that he saw out the Bambatha Rebellion. This rebellion took place in Natal and was instigated by a young hot-headed Zulu Chief by the name of Bambatha from the Zondi clan around Kranskop in the Natal Midlands.
Natal, post Boer War was in financial distress and the colonial government decided on a poll tax of £1 per black male over the age of 18 in order to augment their depleted coffers. This decision was met with sullen acceptance by most but Bambatha saw this as an opportunity to foment resistance to the white man’s rule. From February 1906 onwards until later that year the militia were called out, Brace among them, with the troubles ending with the capture and beheading of Bambatha at Mome Gorge in Zululand. For his efforts Brace was awarded the Natal Medal with 1906 clasp.
Now out of uniform he put out feelers for a career with the Colonial Service addressing a letter to the High Commissioner, Lord Selborne, from P.O. Box 3533 Johannesburg on 7 April 1906. The letter is insightful as it illustrates the role Brace played in South Africa up until this time and reads as follows:
“May it please Your Excellency to assist me to obtain employment – I have been in Johannesburg for a year. During that period for months together I have been unable to earn a penny and now that the winter is near at hand and the depression is likely to continue and even get worse the outlook is very gloomy.
I served through the late Boer War, was attached to the 85th Kings Shropshire Light Infantry and served on the personal staff of Colonel Sir John Jervis White-Jervis Bart. R.H.A., of which the Rev. Fowler Newton, M.A. was Chaplain and wo is now resident at Krugersdorp to whom you could refer if you thought proper.
During the latter part of the war I was Intelligence Officer to Colonel Dawkins R.A. Column and am now on the Reserve of Officers in Australia. In view of my military experience I should like to join the South African service and would be grateful if Your Excellency would put me in the way of obtaining such a post.
I have made several friends up here and they also would be pleased to recommend me for any position Your Excellency may be good enough to recommend me for. I have taken the liberty of enclosing for your perusal reference from the Bank of Australia which I left to join the Victoria Mounted Rifles, also instructions from Major Dawkins commanding the 85th Regiment during my service under him and also testimony from Colonel Dawkins R.A.
I may mention I have a wife and two young children. The alternative of my being unable to obtain suitable employment here would be to return to Australia but this is impossible as I have no means to pay the necessary expenses.
Awaiting Your Excellency’s Commands I have the honour to be etc. etc.”
The letter from the Bank referred to above was dated Ballarat, 8 June 1896 and signed by the Chairman of the Savings Bank, James Oddie – it read thus,
“Mr Edgar Brace, Melbourne
At a meeting of the Trustees of this bank held on 23 December last it was decided that on your promotion to the Office of the Commissioners of Savings Banks, you should be furnished with a reference as to your connexion with this office.
It affords me great pleasure in being able to state that during the period (nearly five years) that you were and Officer of the Trustees your conduct was diligent, honest and straightforward, and that on all occasions you fulfilled your duties in a satisfactory manner.”
Lieutenant Colonel Dawkins’ letter was a terse affair, as can be expected from a military man with limited time at his disposal. It read as follows:
“Captain E. Brace (this is the first intimation we have that he made Captain’s rank) has been with my Column as Intelligence Officer for about 4 months. He is painstaking and dependable. I can recommend him for any position of trust and responsibility.” C.T. Dawkins, Elandsfontein 19/6/02
Brace also included for the High Commissioner’s view an actual order he had received:
Lt. Brace, V.M.I.
You will accompany Lt. Malan, Military Secretary to General Viljoen to Middelburg, showing him every courtesy. On arrival if no Staff Officer is present to receive him, you will proceed with him to the Chief Staff Office and await orders.
(Sgd) C.T. Dawkins, Comdt.
But what became of Brace’s earnest entreaty for work? The outcome was contained in a letter from the Governor’s Office as follows:
“I am directed by Lord Selborne to inform you that he makes no appointments in the Civil Service of the Transvaal and knows of no vacant position likely to suit you.
I am to add however that, in view of the recent widespread retrenchment in the public service, it is extremely unlikely that it will be found possible to find you any employment.”
Frustrated at every turn Brace applied to the Veterinary Department of the Colony of Natal and was, at last rewarded with an appointment as a Veterinary Assistant on 17 October 1906 on a salary of £20 per month. This wasn’t to last long however, and the Punch of 23 August 1907 reported that “Lieutenant Edgar Brace arrived in Melbourne from South Africa last week. Lieut. Brace served through the late Zulu Rebellion being attached to the Staff.”
So Brace was now back on home soil once more. An article in The Age 9 November 1909 edition reported that, “For his services in the Zulu Rebellion, which followed the Boer War, Lieutenant Brace was one of those connected with the Colonial contingents who remained in South Africa after the Boer War, and the medal is believed to be the only one of the kind that has come to this part of the Empire.”
But despite these notices the press for Edgar Brace was about to become very negative and he was about to make headlines for the wrong reasons. The Victoria Police Gazette of 8 May 1913 reported:-
“EDGAR BRACE – A warrant of commitment has been issued by the St. Kilda Bench against Edgar Brace, for 7 day’s imprisonment, in default of payment of 20 shillings, fine, and 23 shillings for wilful trespass. Description: Clerk, 37 years of age, 6 feet high, well built, dark complexion, short brown moustache only, walks with a swagger, generally wears a dark day suit and black boxer hat, which he wears a little on one side.”
The 17 July 1913 edition of the same Gazette informed readers that – EDGAR BRACE, on warrant of commitment, has paid the fine to the Bourke Street west police. The costs have not been paid.”
But what had occasioned the spot of bother in which Brace, a “war hero” found himself? The answer was to be found in The Age of 16 November 1920 when, in an article headed “DIVORCE COURT – Brace vs Brace, his shenanigans were bared for all to see. The article read as follows,
Muriel Francis Bradford Brace, 38 of Northcote Road, Armadale, for whom Mr L Woolf appeared, sued for divorce from Edgar Brace, 46, formerly a military officer, and now a canvasser and commission agent of “The Bungalow”, Inkerman Road, Caulfield, on the grounds of his repeated misconduct with a woman unknown, and cruelty.
Petitioner stated that she and respondent were married on 7 September 1903, and there were two living children of the union. They were resident in South Africa for some time, but owing to respondent’s cruelty, she was obliged to return to her parents in Australia. In August 1907 he followed her here and sought to live with her again, but he refused to contribute to either her support or that of their children.
For a while they did cohabit, but cohabitation finally ceased in November 1912. Respondent continued to annoy her by calling on her at her father’s house, and was once fined at a police court for trespass there. In 1914 he was constantly seen about with a tall, slight woman, with whom he was afterwards found to be living at Inkerman Road, Caulfield. A decree nisi was granted on the grounds of misconduct, petitioner to have custody of her children.”
Another version of the divorce appeared in the “Argus” of November 4th 1920
“Muriel Frances Bradford Brace (36), of Northcote road, Armadale, sued for divorce from Edgar Brace, formerly a military officer, now a canvasser and commission agent, of The Bungalow, Inkerman Road, Caulfield. The grounds of the petition were desertion, repeated acts of misconduct with an unknown woman, and cruelty. The parties were married in September, 1903, and there were two children, aged respectively 16 and 14 year. They lived in South Africa after the marriage. Petitioner alleged that she was forced to leave her husband owing to his cruelty. She came back to Australia in 1907, and he followed her. He wished to have the right to see her whenever he pleased, but he was not willing to support her and his children. She was then living with her parents. He deserted her in 1912, and for 17 months he lived in a furnished flat at Caulfield with another woman, who was believed by the landlady to be his wife. A decree nisi was granted, on the ground of misconduct, with costs, petitioner to have the custody of the children. Mr. L. S. Woolf (Instructed by Mr. W. H. Flood) appeared for the petitioner.”
So there it was Brace, who had shown much early promise had become, in the end, a bit of a cad. He passed away at the age of 50 in Victoria in 1926. Remembered by we know not who.
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I at one time had or might still have (my collection has been packed away and record keeping fallen by the wayside) a WW1 group to a Brace. His father was the RSM of Natal Field Artillery at one time. Any relation?