09 March 2014

Samuel James Steele - case closed

This particular search started when I received an email from Major Dan H. Dan had a 1914-15 Star awarded to 2248 PTE Samuel James Steele. When the medal arrived I was immediately intrigued by the unit that Steele was posted to - the 2nd Remount Unit. I knew what this type of unit did but I'd had not seen a medal to this unit before. The AIF remount units received, prepared and forwarded horses to light horse units fighting in Palestine. Steele's service record gave me several clues about him including his wife's name, his place and year of birth and some correspondence in the 1940s with his address. Usually this amount of information is sufficient to provide a clear linage to the current generation.
In this case I was totally wrong. Each lead in the service record yielded nothing. There was also a large discrepancy between the place of birth listed on the WWI enlistment papers and what was later stated in a Salutatory Declaration. The usual sources that I access gave me no new leads, I really hit a brick wall. I couldn't move forward so I looked backwards.
Steele's WWI record mentioned in two locations that he had served in the Boer War. This was the first real break through and the following story unfolded.



Mention of the Boer War battle at Wilmansrust may spark little or no recognition these days. Several articles have been written about this action in recent years; however, the event seems destined to fade into Australian Military History largely unremembered. Taking into consideration that the battle itself was more obscure than many others in which Australians have fought, this is perhaps not surprising, but the subsequent scandal following the event is worthy of recognition. This scandal had a significant impact on decisions that were later made concerning the fledgling Australian federation’s military force.
I stumbled upon the name Wilmansrust quite by accident as a result of the brief mention that Steele served during the Boer War. Subsequent research unearthed the story of the Wilmansrust battle, the subsequent scandal and 1142 Private James Steele’s role tumbled out.
It took a while to confirm, however, it is certain that 2248 Private Samuel James Steele and 1142 Private James Steele are the same man. That was the second significant piece of research that went in to this story. This is a picture of Steele published at the time he departed for the Boer War.

The Battle at Wilmansrust.
The 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles (5th VMR) arrived in South Africa in February of the year 1901 with a compliment of 46 officers, 971 other ranks, and 1099 horses. By June of that year, the regiment, now numbering around 700 men, was allocated to a column under the command of Major General S.B. Beatson, a British officer. The regiment was split in to two wings. Major Umphelby commanded the right wing. Major McKnight commanded the left wing. McKnight was allocated two small artillery pieces under the command of a British artillery officer by the name of Major Morris. Although Major McKnight was the senior Victorian officer of his wing, he answered to Major Morris.
Major McKnight’s wing was tasked to sweep towards a reported Boer encampment that they found to be abandoned. The left wing then commenced its return to the main column but by the afternoon of 12 Jun 1901, with Major McKnight and his men approximately 20km from the main column, Major Morris ordered a halt, and for the men to make camp near Wilmansrust farm. To provide security, Major Morris, who was in charge, set pickets. At the camp proper the men centralised their weapons away from their tents as ordered, and slept prior to being required for duty. The on duty pickets numbered 120 of the total force of 350; furthermore, each picket was some distance apart and was not supported by a patrolling program or a communication system. Unfortunately, this was also observed by the Boers.
After the 5th VMR camp settled down, the Boer Commandant Muller led a group of commandos between the pickets and on into the camp. The time was 1930. The Boer numbers are reported to have been between 120 and 170. During the assault it has been noted that the Boer commandos spoke in English and were dressed in khaki, which added significantly to the confusion. Majors McKnight and Morris were captured, the outer pickets did not assist and within 15 minutes the battle was over leaving 18 men from the 5th VMR killed and 41 wounded. The Boers departed with the artillery pieces, horses, ammunition and other supplies. After having walked a short way with the captured officers the Boers released them when they realised they had no way to hold them.
Major General Beatson held the 5th VMR completely responsible for this disaster. Shortly after the battle he came across some members of the regiment who were bayoneting a pig and is quoted as saying, ‘Yes, that’s just about what you men are good for. When the Dutchmen came along the other night you didn’t fix bayonets and charge them, but you go for something that can’t hit back.’
Following this, a further insult against the 5th VMR was again made by Major General Beatson, this time in the presence of two Australian Officers, Major Harris and Captain Anderson. It is reported that Beatson said, ‘I tell you what I think; the Australians are a fat, round shouldered, useless lot of wasters.’ Harris remonstrated with Beatson and declared he would note the General’s comment. Beatson responded, ‘Do by all means, and you can add if you like that in my opinion they are a lot of white-livered cur….You can add dogs too’.
The Mutiny.
 In July, the 5th VMR was again allocated to be under Beatson’s command. This caused much discussion amongst the soldiers. One was overheard to say, ‘We’ll be a lot of fools if we go out with him again. It will be better for the men to be shot than to go out with a man who called them white livered curs’. The man accused of making this statement was Steele, who was quickly arrested with the two other men present, Privates Arthur Richards and Herbert Parry.
The sentence.
The three were very quickly court martialled for mutiny and on 11 July 1901 were found guilty and sentenced to death. Lord Kitchener quickly commuted the sentences to prison terms with hard labour. Steele received ten years, and Richards and Parry received one year each.
An inquiry was also held into the decisions of Major Morris at the battle. Due to his overall command status at Wilmansrust, the Morris was censured.
Parliament.
The Australian press was soon reporting the story and there was considerable public outcry, leading to it being reprinted in papers all across the country as well as in New Zealand.  The matter was soon brought before the new Parliament and the Prime Minister Sir Edmund Barton, who then petitioned King Edward VII as the prisoners were by then in England. The King intervened and secured the prisoners’ release and return to South Africa and then home to Victoria. The British Judge Advocate General later quashed the convictions
Letter to brother-in-law.
Amongst all the articles published about Steele was a letter which he wrote to his brother-in-law from prison. This provided proof that Steele had a wider family than just his wife, though unfortunately the brother-in-law’s name is not given.
At the end of this story I've included several of the news paper stories and a published version of this letter that appeared in the papers at the time.
Aftermath.
The ‘Wilmansrust Scandal’, as it became known, had a considerable impact on public opinion in Australia, though it was later overshadowed by the Breaker Morant execution early in 1902. The more recent popularity of the Morant story has probably assisted in pushing the Wilmansrust episode further into the shadows. That being said, the treatment of Steele, Richards and Parry probably played a bigger part than the Morant case did in shaping Australia’s laws concerning Australian soldiers being subject to capital punishment.
This policy to retain disciplinary control by Australian authorities during WWI rather than allow Imperial discipline to occur, was a significant decision for the new Commonwealth. It may also have played a role in the larrikin attitude of Australian soldiers during WWI, knowing that the death penalty would not be applied to them.
News paper report.
Steele appears in the newspapers again other than in the stories about Wilmansrust, as having assaulted a policeman in 1902 in Deniliquin. He served 6 months hard labour. This is his prison photo.
WWI.
Samuel James Steele next appears in official documentation at his enlistment, aged 46, for service during WWI. Steele’s service record shows that he was living in Queensland when he enlisted, and that his wife’s name was Jessie. While the enlistment attestation paper mentions his Boer War service there is no specific mention of Wilmansrust.
Steele made it to the theater of war in late 1915, which made him eligible for the 1914-15 Star. He was also awarded the British war Medal and the Victory Medal. Steele returned to Australia and was discharged in Brisbane.His service record shows that disciplinary action was taken on several occasions and were related to alcohol use.
There is no evidence of him on the electoral rolls, nor on any of the ‘births, deaths and marriages’ rolls in either Queensland or Victoria. A letter from 1943 that appears in his service record shows that he was living in Melbourne at the time, but after that there are no further records on him.

So, despite all this information I was really getting no where. Following the success of the McCarthy story I contacted Jennifer King from ABC to see if she would be interested in another story. The end result was this online edition.
The story generated considerable interest. I had hoped that a relative would read it and come forward. No such luck. What I did get were emails from several people each of who had a small piece of information. It took me about a fortnight to piece everything together but I eventuality work out a family tree.
Samuel James Steele was the son of James (John) Steele and Elizabeth Conway. The family was from Ballarat. I think that the place on birth that Samuel James gave on his WWI papers was a ruse. This town was Korumburra and on the opposite of Victoria to Ballarat. One of Samuel James' sisters married in to a family from there so I think it was adopted as the place of birth. John died in 1887 and this is his head stone.
One of Samuel James' sisters married Walter Blews from Korumburra and it is Walter who is the brother in law that Samuel James wrote to from prison. Another sister, Elizabeth married Albert Alway and it is this branch of the family that I was able to follow. I got as far as the current generation but once again I went back wards in this search.
The one constant piece of information that I had for his family is that from about 1900 they lived at an address in Camberwell. It kept cropping up in the electoral rolls. I was eventually put in touch Elizabeth's grand daughter, Jean, who is alive and well aged 90. Jean only sold the Camberwell home 4 months ago to move in to a retirement village. Jean was able to confirm all my research and add a bit more. It would appear that Samuel James was referred to a Jim and he and Jessie weren't actually married but lived together for many years. Jim was living in the Camberwell house at one point when Jean was a toddler which is an amazing link with this research. Jean is Samuel James' great niece.
I'll be sending the medal to Jean in the near future. I've individual thanked all the people who were able to assist me with this search, however, I would like to single out Jen King for her assistance. The extent this body of work is also one of the reasons that there has not been many other stories posted in recent weeks. The returned medal tally is 1426.







1 comment:

  1. Amazing ... I keep telling people that there are no coincidences.

    ReplyDelete