Monday, July 31, 2017

More lost Australians?



NOTE: All stories in this series on those who are buried at Paradise Cemetery in Zimbabwe can be followed via the links highlighted in blue below.


On 19 August 1933, an E.H. Stephens, former trooper in the West Australian Bushmen, 3rd Contingent, wrote to the Editor of The West Australian from the Cecil Hotel, Umtali, while on a return pilgrimage to the places he had travelled through when serving in the Boer War and he described each place as they were now compared to 1900.

Marandellas in the 1930s
(The railway line and station are behind the photographer.)
Copyright Tony Ward

What he had to say about Marandellas throws up more evidence that supports the erroneous recording of deaths from diseases and accidents and that far more men may lie in Paradise than previously thought:

“On arrival at [Marandellas] I found a new and up-to-date school built on the very site where our horse lines were located when we passed through that place in 1900. I was distressed to find there sixteen graves of soldiers with no inscription on them whatsoever. It would appear that the names had been painted on the iron standards at the head of each grave some considerable time ago, but in the course of time all these had become illegible. I made inquiries from the police at Marandellas and was informed that they did not know who were the men buried there, but thought that they were Australians. I am taking up this matter with the Minister of Defence at Canberra to see that, if these are Australian graves, some suitable inscription should be placed there to mark the fact that Australians passed through Marandellas to the relief of Mafeking in the early part of 1900.”
Sixteen graves found by E.H. Stephens! Even allowing for some of them to be soldiers from other British contingents, it is still astonishing and adds yet another angle to this series of blog posts that was originally intended to try and establish the backgrounds of the mere handful of individuals thought to be buried at Paradise Cemetery but, with each discovery, is shaping up to be a far more complicated project that turns a lot of official Boer War information on its head.

Stephens goes on to write this about Umtali and the other graves en route to Beira. 

“From Marandellas I came down to Umtali and I found the graves of a large number of Australians and Imperial Yeomanry, who died in that town, chiefly of malarial fever. I am very pleased to state, and no doubt relatives of the fallen will be pleased to know, that the graves of these men have been carefully tended and looked after ever since their burial, by the Loyal Women’s Guild of Umtali. When my wife and I visited the cemetery fresh flowers were on every soldier’s grave, and a little bush of Christ-thorn had been planted on each grave, and each plant was flowering gaily in memory of the brave men who gave up their lives in the service of their country so long ago.”

Whether he did get any action from the Australian Defence Ministry is unknown, but it is so sad that today the cemetery at Umtali (Mutare) once so “carefully tended” and its graves of Boer War soldiers are now reduced to this:-




Other graves en-route were not faring so well either by the 1930s and it is assumed no trace of any now remain.

“I was very grieved to hear that graves of all the soldiers who were buried in Portuguese territory, which lies between Umtali and the town of Beira, were in great disrepair, and not one single name was filled in on these graves. In most cases, tall rank grass covered the spot of these men’s last resting place. It is a serious reflection on our country that the graves of our men who died on foreign soil should be treated in such a way. I am mentioning this matter also to the Minister of Defence to see if any Australian graves are amongst these, so that evidence of these men having been buried there should be erected.”

He concludes with wishing his “old comrades of the Boer War” well and his “memories of the many fine fellows of whom it was my privilege to be a comrade so long ago.”


Here are some Australians who may be among those sixteen buried at Paradise Cemetery but with their deaths erroneously attributed to other places and before well-meaning groups like the Loyal Women’s Guild belatedly tried to restore their markers, only to add to the mess. The best clue as to where they died is by correlating dates of their deaths with the movements of their units (on the understanding, of course, some sick men may have been left behind and not recorded as so). 

John Campbell Duncan McPherson Swan, Private 584, 3rd Contingent, Victorian Imperial Bushmen. 


Born Purnim  near to Warrnambool, Victoria, on 16 March 1877. His occupation, a station manager at Purnim and his marital status, single. His next of kin were his parents, John William Swan and Jane Swan (nee Campbell). A Protestant by religion, he stood 5 feet 11 1/4 inches. Sailed on the Euralyus from Melbourne on 10 March 1900 and disembarked at Beira on 3 April 1900 to join the Rhodesian Field Force.

Although official cause of death on 28 May 1900 is shown as enteric or malarial fever (these cannot be the same thing, enteric is another name for typhoid) there are also reports that in his delirium he took carbolic acid by mistake instead of his proper medicine and died of poisoning and thus is also listed as a suicide. As with the tragic mistakes discovered earlier that went on in the field hospitals of the time, this is something that would cause outrage in our day and be the subject of a major inquiry. One wonders if his family were ever told the truth or got to the bottom of it. Australian Boer War entry here. 


Thomas Barham Foster, Private No. 367 of D Squadron, 4th Victorian Imperial Bushmen.



When Captain Joseph Dallimore wrote about Trooper John Kiley’s death (see earlier blog post here), he mentioned Kiley was “the second” man from D Squadron to die in Marandellas and thus the first must have been Thomas Barham Foster. (D Squadron had arrived in Marandellas in July.)

Born Sale, Victoria, 27 July 1875, he stated his occupation as a Miner from Inglewood. He was single. He shows his brother, Arthur Alexander Foster, of Dunolly, Victoria, as next of kin, and parents William Henry Foster and Catherine McLean Foster, nee Paterson. Religion, Church of England. Sailed from Port Melbourne on the Victorian. Died of enteric on 22 August 1900.

In 1903, his old college at Ballarat arranged a memorial plaque for him and three other old collegians who died during the Boer War, but it is not known if it still exists. Australian Boer War entry here.


Sergeant Herbert Brent is described in the book That Ragged Mob as the “first casualty of the Victorians”, who died after an accident on the railway line on 14 May 1900.




Sergeant Brent had served with the New South Wales Militia prior to going to live in Victoria and “was one of the first to be offered Sergeant’s stripes when he was accepted for the Bushmen Contingent.”  This entry from the Bendigo Advertiser of 23 May 1900:

DEATH OF SERGEANT BRENT A WELL-KNOWN RESIDENT OF CARISBROOK
Carisbrook, 22nd May
This afternoon Mrs. Brent received a telegram from the Minister of Defence conveying the painful news that her husband, Sergeant Herbert Brent, of the third Victorian, or Bushmen's contingent, had been killed in a railway accident near Umpati [sic. Umtali]. Most of the residents were at the time engaged in making preparations for the Mafeking demonstration tomorrow night, and Major Bruhn immediately postponed it to Thursday. Sergeant Brent, on joining the contingent, relinquished the business of the Carisbrook hotel. His previous experience as a member of the New South Wales permanent forces led to his appointment as a non-commissioned officer of the contingent. He was a member of the Carisbrook Borough Council, and the vacancy created by his departure, was only filled a few days ago. He was also a lieutenant of the Carisbrook Fire Brigade. He was about 36 years of age and leaves a widow and four young children. The sad news cast a gloom over the town.
The reasons for his death have several versions, but the basic fact is that he was accidentally killed by the train that was bringing the men from Umtali to Marandellas. His “particularly gruesome” end happened when he fell from the engine and had his arms cut by the wheels. Some reports say the engine driver was intoxicated and Brent tried to drive the train, or that he’d been travelling on the running board and collided with an embankment. Some even went so far to ask what was a untrained publican doing trying to help drive a train anyhow?

Apparently there is a private letter that states Brent was buried “the next day at 7 a.m. in Marandellas 'on a bright sunny morning with full military honours'.But, then you have some newspapers telling their readers that Brent died in Winburg, a town in The Orange Free State of South Africa over 1,000 miles away!

A brief investigation of Herbert Brent via Ancestry family trees suggests he was older than stated (b. 1863) and the son of a convict transported for larceny, also that he had been married twice and had many more children than just the three/four mentioned in the reports. One has to wonder why a man with so many responsibilities wanted to volunteer for such an enterprise in the first place.

Carisbrook Hotel, c. 1930


I was about to include Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant John Nathaniel Walton No. 275 of the New South Wales Citizen Bushmen as another possible in Paradise, as he has several entries suggesting he was buried at Marandellas, but this detailed report in The Ballarat Star of 17 July 1900 by Reverend James Green, the Chaplain accompanying this contingent, confirms beyond doubt he died and was buried at Iron Mine Hill. 

It is worth including here this poignant extract as it gives some idea of how the graves of these men have become lost to history (also that of the pioneer father and his two children). Perhaps the pile of stones is still there although any wooden cross would not last long in Africa:-

" ... At noon of the 21st, Quartermaster-Sergeant John N. Walton, who had been ill more or less since leaving Marandellas became very much worse. He had been relieved of his duties ... and was lying on the waggons during the trek. He became unconscious when being assisted off one of the waggons. Captain Machattie decided that it would necessary to leave Walton at Iron Mine Hill. I stayed with him, and had a supply of invalid's food and some medicine with which to nurse him. Mrs. Svenson, the proprietress of the store, was very kind and we occupied a Kaffir hut near the store. I kept my horse with me, in order to follow the detachment. Unfortunately I was disappointed in my hope of nursing poor Walton well, for he gradually sank, and never regained consciousness. He died at 3.10 a.m. on 22nd May of congestion of the brain following malarial fever and bronchitis. I stopped a waggon-load of "boys" who were going to work on the road at 4 a.m. The foreman allowed me three boys to dig a grave. They worked until 2.30 p.m. as the ground was rocky. We dug the grave in a line with three other graves, in which were buried Mrs. Svenson's husband and two children, who died of fever at Iron Mine Hill. The only two white settlers, who were very kind, tried their best to make a coffin of packing case wood, but found it impossible with the short wood they had. We were reluctant to bury him in his blankets, though that is the custom on the veldt. After searching we found an old sheet of corrugated iron; this we placed on the bottom of the grave. We built a wall of stone around this, and made a strong lid to fit on top of it. At 4 o'clock on the same day we buried him. We put a wooden cross at the head of the grave, with name and suitable inscription painted upon it. ...."

Some nations and veterans organisations spend an inordinate amount of time and expense restoring cemeteries from the last two world wars, creating beautiful gardens and fixing up weathered or damaged gravestones, yet the scattered war cemeteries in Africa seem doomed to be neglected or completely forgotten. 

The photograph below taken in 1980 is probably the last time any Australian soldiers tended to the graves at Paradise and it is unlikely to happen again while the regime in Zimbabwe remains hostile towards any commemoration of its prior colonial history.

Front page, The Canberra Times
February 19, 1980

All posts in this series on Digging the Dust








With special acknowledgement and thanks to ZimFieldGuideSabretache and to Robin Droogleever whose book That Ragged Mob has been an invaluable resource in re-discovering some of these lost men of Empire.