Tuesday, September 1, 2020

For a few cattle

One hundred and twenty years ago today, a young Tasmanian soldier, John Hutton Bisdee, serving in the Boer War, risked his life to carry an officer out of danger, and thus became the first Tasmanian to be awarded a Victoria Cross. His diaries, along with other Bisdee family papers, are held at the Archives Office of Tasmania, and contain a vivid account of the day he became a hero.
John Hutton Bisdee was born in 1869 at Hutton Park, Melton Mowbray, Tasmania. He was schooled in Hobart, and then worked on his father’s property until 1900, when he enlisted in the 1st Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen’s Contingent to serve in the South African War.
Soon after arriving in the Transvaal, Bisdee was one of an advanced scouting party ambushed. Six out of the party of eight were hit, and the horse of one of the wounded officers broke away and bolted. Still under fire, and in an exposed position, Bisdee dismounted, lifted the wounded officer onto his own horse so as to carry him out of danger. This action led to him being the first Tasmanian awarded the Victoria Cross.
>Subsequently, Bisdee had a lung infection and was invalided home; but after recovering he returned to the war in March 1901, this time with a commission as a lieutenant in the 2nd Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen’s Contingent and served until the end of the war. He later served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the First World War, during which he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and was Mentioned in Despatches. He died in early 1930. There is a little more information available at Wikipedia, and Archives of Tasmania
A significant collection of papers once belonging to the Bisdee family - John Hutton Bisdee’s grandfather first sailed to the Antipodes in 1820 - are now held by the Archives Office of Tasmania. These include a journal written by the grandfather during his voyage, and three diaries written by Bisdee between 1898 and 1901, mostly during the Boer War. Bisdee’s diary is quoted extensively in Tasmanians in the Transvaal War by John Bufton (1905), freely available at Internet Archive (and the source of the following extracts).
1 September 1900
‘Warned last night that we should be called at 2 a.m. to repeat the day before’s movement, but this was countermanded during the night. I expect Boers were lying in ambush for us. Twenty of us sent on patrol in the afternoon under Captain Brooke and Lieutenant Wylly to secure some cattle. Had a terrible experience, which I shall never forget. We were led through a narrow neck into a veritable death trap. I cannot understand how the officers did not realise the danger. This neck led into a sort of basin with steep rocky hills rising in front. They opened fire on our five advance guardmen at short range, and then upon all of us, and how we got away at all is most wonderful. As it was we had four wounded, Wylly slightly, and Sergeant G. Shaw and Willoughby and Corporal Brown rather worse, and J. S. Brown very seriously, and the guide also severely wounded. The two latter fell into the hands of the Boers, and we fear they are in a critical state. The others are being attended to by the ambulance. The bullets came round us as thick as hail, and exploded with loud report as they struck. Captain Brooke was unhorsed. I gave him mine, running alongside myself, as he also received a slight wound in the leg. Corporal Brown’s horse was shot, and Wylly gave him his horse, as he was wounded badly in the foot. Groom then picked up Wylly on his horse, and we rode for our lives. Two men, Clark and Blackaby lost their horses (Clark gave his to Willoughby), but managed to evade the Boers, and arrived in camp late. Walter’s horse was shot, and he, stopping with J. S. Brown, was captured by the Boers, who let him go to report upon Brown’s case, and send an ambulance in. Altogether it has been a terrible experience, and seems so utterly foolhardy to go into such a place without scouts well out in front and good supports behind. All for the sake of a few cattle!
5 September 1900
‘Rest to-day. Prepared for Boers, but they kept in check and driven back by our friends, the guns.’
8 September 1900
‘Marched till 1 o’clock this morning, then had a rest for three hours, when we were sent off again patrolling after some Boers supposed to be in the vicinity. Some of our men came across two of them and gave them a hot time, but they got away, leaving bandoliers and meat bag. We stopped most of the afternoon at Saltpan, a large salt factory close by a salt lake, which lay in a deep basin. It looked like a lake frozen over. Started again at 5.30, and marched on to Waterval, which we reached at about midnight, very tired.’
This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 1 September 2010.

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