The 10th Battalion prepares for war

The Broken Hill men were assigned to the 10th Battalion, which together with the 9th, 11th and 12th Battalions formed the 3rd Brigade. Andy Duncan, with his previous military experience, was assigned the rank of Sergeant.

The 10th Battalion reached its full strength by the end of August 1914. All of September and the first half of October 1914 was spent training at Morphettville.

“Life at Morphettville is strenuous during working hours, when the soldier, be he the finished article or the raw recruit, spends hours training for duty at the front. But when work is over he is, within certain limits, his own master. The picture shows members of the expeditionary force spending a brief period in recreation.”
CAMP LIFE AT MORPHETTVILLE. (1914, August 29) The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA) p. 17. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

On 20 October Andy embarked for active service abroad. The men of the 10th Battalion were transferred by train to Outer Harbour where they boarded HMAT Ascanius. Their destination was unknown, but there was speculation that the battalion would be heading to Europe.

The Ascanius made a brief stop at Albany, Western Australia, then sailed for Egypt via Colombo.

HMAT Ascanius (A11) at Fremantle, Western Australia in November 1914.  Australian War Memorial collection H16157
HMAT Ascanius (A11) at Fremantle, Western Australia in November 1914.
Australian War Memorial collection H16157

On 3 November Andy experienced the first bad weather – and possibly his first bout of sea-sickness – of the voyage. As the day progressed waves crashed over the deck with increasing fury. The rough seas continued overnight. On some transport ships horses were washed overboard.

The following day the weather calmed somewhat and the Ascanius joined the Anzac fleet of 38 transports. 6 warships, including the Japanese TMS Ibuka, escorted the fleet.

The fleet headed northeast, into waters where German cruisers prowled for allied ships. During the day the men prepared with fire alarm, collision and boat drills. At night the fleet sailed with all lights out.

The weather became hot and muggy. Andy would have slept on deck to seek some relief.

In the early morning of 9 November Andy may have witnessed the HMAS Sydney steam west at full speed. He likely watched several hours later when the Melbourne and the Ibuka raced away with battle flags raised. The men knew that something was doing. Then at 11:15am news was received from the Sydney that the German cruiser Emden was “beached and done for”.

Another Broken Hill enlistee, Private H.W.B. Macarty, wrote

Great rejoicing on board, free beer, very hot.

The heat was relentless. By 14 November the men had “no smokes and little to drink”. A stop at Colombo 15 – 17 November was only to take on coal and water; there was no shore leave and no opportunity to replenish tobacco and matches.

When the fleet left Colombo the men were aware that German submarines were active in the area. So when the Ascanius collided with the Shropshire before dawn on 21 November, some thought the ship had been attacked.

The men in the forward compartments of the Ascanius were thrown from their hammocks by the force. Andy would have hurriedly paraded on deck with life belt on, ready to evacuate the ship. Evacuation was not necessary, however. Despite receiving a 7-metre hole in the port bow the Ascanius proceeded on to Aden.

The fleet reached Aden on 25 November. For many soldiers the bustling port must have been a new and exotic experience. Macarty wrote

Bedouins, Arabian Jews, Pharsees all around boat like flies selling Pine Apples, cigarettes, belts, large harbour, workers a lazy lot, get 4d a day, we throw spuds … to make them work, talk a man blind.

Perhaps Andy was reminded of his time in India.

Local men trading with troops on board an Australian transport at the port of Aden, Egypt. Baskets transferring food and goods are being lifted up to the ship by a set of ropes. Australian War Memorial collection C02540
Local men trading with troops on board an Australian transport at the port of Aden, Egypt. Baskets transferring food and goods are being lifted up to the ship by a set of ropes.
Australian War Memorial collection C02540

The fleet left Aden at dawn the following day. Soon after Andy became unwell, possibly from the intense heat and the fever that was doing the rounds, or from the sea-sickness that still plagued some men. He was in bed for 5 days, treated for dehydration. From his bed he would have heard that the Australian Division was to disembark at Alexandria and proceed to Cairo for training.

The Australians were going to advance against the Turks.

Troops depart Broken Hill

WAR BETWEEN ENGLAND AND GERMANY. (1914, August 6) The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA) p. 8. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
WAR BETWEEN ENGLAND AND GERMANY. (1914, August 6) The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA) p. 8. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Exactly four months after Andy Duncan and Jane Stewart married, Britain declared war with Germany. In Broken Hill and all around Australia there was an enthusiastic rush of volunteers to join the Australian Expeditionary Force.  Andy Duncan is likely one of the volunteers described in Broken Hill’s Barrier Miner newspaper on 13 August

Since England has been at war, there has been a steady stream of able bodied men of all classes to the military staff office in Broken Hill, to enrol themselves as volunteers for the front. This afternoon Regimental Sergeant-Major Miller reported that altogether over 250 applications had been made

… Of the men, 125 who have had military experience have been selected, and these will probably form one of the companies of the Australian expeditionary forces. Those who have been chosen will probably be medically examined within the next few days. There may be a slight reduction in the number on this account, but the men are described as being of a splendid stamp, physically. The ages of the men range between 19 and 35, most of them being in the twenties. Twenty one are married, but only a few have children. The largest family is four.

While feelings of nationalism and patriotic duty drove the rush to enlist, in Broken Hill drought and unemployment in the mines must have had some influence.

Events moved quickly in August. By 15 August the makeup of the Australian Expeditionary Force and enlistment requirements had been finalised. Broken Hill men were expected to fill the South Australian quota of the Expeditionary Force. A recruiting and training camp was established at Morphettville in Adelaide.

Within a few hours of the Morphettville Camp opening, long queues formed outside the gates of men waiting to enlist. In Broken Hill eager volunteers underwent medical examinations. Andy Duncan was judged fit for active service – though at 5 foot 7 inches tall and a chest measurement of 35 inches, he only just met the minimum physical requirements for enlistment.

A.S. Duncan attestation 20 August 1914.  B2455/3525935 © Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2013.
A.S. Duncan attestation 20 August 1914.
© Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2013.

On Friday 21 August the first men were farewelled from Broken Hill. The scene was reminiscent of the farewell given to the South Lancashires in 1899 – even the songs were the same. Again Andy was not among the first group marching away; he left by train the following evening. His R.A.O.B. brethren were at the station to see the train out.

The first Broken Hill men to arrive at Morphettville in August 1914. Andy Duncan joined them a few days later. State Library of South Australia B 37013

The Barrier Miner reported –



Enthusiastic scenes marked the departure from Broken Hill last night of about 120 more volunteers for the front.

With the exception of two or three, who expect to be drafted into the Light Horse, all of last night’s batch belong to the Infantry. Lieutenant O. L. Davey was in charge of the men, and the other officers who departed were Lieutenants Perry and Farrier.

A few minutes after 6 o’clock the troops assembled in the Skating Rink, which was lent for the purpose by the management. The rink was bedecked with many flags. Though most of the men were in civilian garb, they presented a smart appearance, and their striking physique was favorably commented upon on all sides.

A few smart orders and, led by martial music from the Caledonian Pipers, the march for the station commenced. An enthusiastic demonstration greeted the men’s appearance in Oxide-street, and when the main thoroughfare was reached cheer upon cheer rent the air.

Argent-street was black with people. A vast number, with imaginations enlivened by the music, fell into step with the soldiers, and the marching army of men, women, and children swelled as it proceeded.

At the station the crowd appeared to be considerably larger than that which saw the volunteers away on Friday evening. Similar scenes were witnessed, though the patriotic feelings of the people were more visible – and audible. “Rule Britannia, ‘’God Save the King.” and war songs which have been laid to rest since the Boer war, were sung till throats were hoarse […] One of the Socialists at the northern end of the platform set up some opposition by singing “The Red Flag,” until a man in the crowd cried “Fix bayonets! Charge the red flag!” and they were hustled along a little way.

An enterprising photographer climbed on to the top of the carriages and took a flashlight snap of the crowd. A few minutes after schedule time the engine whistle shrieked its warning, final farewells were called, the Pipers struck up “The Ministrel Boy to the War Has Gone,” and the train drew slowly away from the cheering thousands.

Jane Duncan would have been amongst the crowd. She was fiercely proud of her husband being among the first to enlist, but that would not have made it any easier to watch him go.

A new life in outback Australia

Argent Street, Broken Hill, New South Wales c.1912 State Library of South Australia  Searcy Collection PRG 280/1/11/112
Argent Street, Broken Hill, New South Wales c.1912
State Library of South Australia
Searcy Collection PRG 280/1/11/112

Why did Andy Duncan sail for Australia instead of returning home to Scotland? What did he do after he stepped off the steamer in Sydney in January 1912?

Whether by chance or design, by June he was in Broken Hill, New South Wales. He chose an isolated outback town over the bustle of Sydney.

Broken Hill was a mining town built on silver, lead and zinc. Andy found employment with the Broken Hill Proprietary Company.

The mining centre of Broken Hill, New South Wales c.1912 State Library of South Australia  Searcy Collection PRG 280/1/44/441
The mining centre of Broken Hill, New South Wales c.1912
State Library of South Australia
Searcy Collection PRG 280/1/44/441

Andy quickly became involved in the life of the district. The 15 June 1912 edition of the Barrier Miner newspaper reported Mr. Duncan’s recital of Robert Burns’ “Tam o’ Shanter” at the Caledonian Society’s monthly meeting.

He would have held the floor for a good ten minutes while he recited the poem. This suggests he was probably an established Caledonian Society member by June: would a newcomer choose to recite a famous twenty-verse poem to an unfamiliar audience? Andy must have been among friends at the June meeting.

In September 1912 he was one of the founding members of Broken Hill’s re-formed Thistle Club, where he became known for his recitations of poetry and humorous stories. He also became a member of United Ancient Order of Druids and the new Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (R.A.O.B) lodge.

In Broken Hill Andy renewed his involvement in military matters. He attested for volunteer service in the South Australian Militia, and on 4 November 1912 he was promoted to provisional second lieutenant of the 81st Infantry (Wakefield Battalion).

In March 1913 Lieutenant Duncan spent Easter at the Gawler infantry camp in South Australia, commanding unit E of the battalion during their annual course of continuous training. Andy would have been surprised to find an old South Lancashire Regiment colleague, George Maginis, appointed staff sergeant-major for the training. Andy and Maginis had been with the regiment in South Africa, and would have crossed paths again in Warrington.

Almost immediately after returning from Gawler, Andy resigned his lieutenant position in the Battalion. It is unclear why.

Around this time Andy met his future wife, Elizabeth Stewart. Perhaps at one of the Thistle Club dances. In one of those curious historical coincidences, Andy had travelled half way around the world to marry a woman who shared the same name as his mother – although his new sweetheart went by her middle name of Jane. What Jane was doing in Broken Hill is a mystery, as her family were settled in Beaufort, Victoria. She seems to have enjoyed travelling and striking out on her own – a trait she and Andy had in common. On 4 April 1914 Andy, 31, and Jane, 25, were married at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Broken Hill. They bought a house in Lane Street but the coming war meant that neither of them would stay in Broken Hill much longer.

Andy and Jane's new home would have had a similar view Residential area at Broken Hill, New South Wales; the mining area structures can be seen on the horizon. Andy and Jane's new home would have had a similar view. State Library of South Australia  Searcy Collection PRG 280/1/11/471
Residential area at Broken Hill, New South Wales; the mining area structures can be seen on the horizon. Andy and Jane’s new home would have had a similar view.
State Library of South Australia
Searcy Collection PRG 280/1/11/471

A boy’s own adventure in India

I wrote earlier of the South Lancashire Regiment’s time in India, starting with their garrison duty at Jubbulpore, Madhya Pradesh province.

While Andy Duncan studied for his sergeant’s exam and improved his woodworking skills, others found more unusual ways to pass the time.

A 1907 newspaper story caught my eye with its mention of the South Lancashires in Jubbulpore. It gives a colourful description of the landscape my great-grandfather would have known.

WHAT THEY CALL A STROLL. (1907, June 8), Sydney Evening News, p. 12. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
WHAT THEY CALL A STROLL. (1907, June 8), Sydney Evening News, p. 12. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

In India Lance-Corporal Atkinson recently walked 118 miles in 47 hours, thus breaking  a record made by one of the South Lancs. Regiment by 6 hours 35 minutes. The following is an account of his experiences as related (says ‘Health and Strength’) by himself: —

When my regiment relieved the South Lancs. Regiment at Jubbulpore [Jabalpur], the first thing I heard about was a record left by a private of that regiment, viz., walking to Sangor [Sagar] by way of the Black Forest, unaccompanied and unarmed, with the exception of a hunting-knife. I decided to attempt to beat this record.

I started on my journey at 5 p.m. on February 27, 1907, carrying 1lb muscatels, 1lb almonds, 12 cakes of chocolate, 30 biscuits, and a hunting-knife. I decided to get water wherever possible. At 5.15 p.m. on the 28th I was sixty miles on my journey. The native police stopped me, and I showed them my pass. They could understand the pass, but I could not make them understand why I should walk instead of ride. Thinking there must be something wrong, they arrested me, and confined me in the gaol. They treated me well, and I was quite a curiosity to the women and children, who seemed to think my manner of eating and washing were peculiar. Next morning at 5.45 the police awakened me, and at 10 a.m. I set out with one native as escort, and walked fifteen miles to a railway station. After I was handed over to the Civil police, and had explained my case to the chief inspector, the escort seemed very much upset at his mistake. The chief inspector promised to help me.

I set out again on March 5, 1907, at 5 a.m., taking passes in Hindu and Hurdu. Arriving at Singrampoor [Singrampur], 47 miles from Jubbulpore, I was advised by the khansarma (or proprietor) of the Dak Bungalow to stop, as otherwise I should reach the Black Forest by night. The danger of this forest lies in the panthers, which lie on the branches of trees and drop down on their victim as he, or it, passes underneath. To ensure safety the native mail carriers travel in pairs, and carry flaming torches and spears, on which are fixed a number of bells. After an hour’s rest I pushed on, deciding to take my chance. After walking a few miles I heard the report of a rifle, followed by a terrific roaring. Not knowing what it was, I climbed a tree. On the noise ceasing I cautiously descended, and was relieved to find that the noise was caused by large monkeys, of which there was innumerable quantities. About 10 miles in the forest I noticed a movement on a tree branch overhanging the path. Fortunately I stopped, and immediately a panther dropped down and disappeared in the jungle on the opposite side. Wild boars, buck, nilgai, etc., were very numerous. I have heard of the stillness of forests, but on this occasion all the animals seemed to unite their voices in one grand chorus, the whistling of beetles mingling with the howling of jackals and the shrieking of hyenas.

I arrived at a village in a small clearing, called Nehta, at 10.30 p.m., and a kindly native lending me half his scanty rags I slept until 1.30 a.m. I earned his undying gratitude by giving him four annas (4d). He did not appear to have possessed such a large sum before, and salaamed most humbly. Leaving the village, the forest resumed its natural aspect. I arrived at Damoh, half-way to my destination, at 5.30 a.m.

Resting here for two hours, I resumed my journey, and after travelling 22 miles I arrived at a river, and was delighted to have a swim. Crossing the river, I arrived at the village of Garakhota [Garhakota]. Close to here the King (when Prince of Wales) shot his first tiger. This is the end of the forest, and I was very pleased to leave it behind me. Walking as rapidly as possible in the awful heat, I was glad when the sun set and night closed in. About 13 miles from the end of my journey I came to a Dak Bungalow, and some soldiers on shooting pass insisted on my going in. After half-an hour’s rest I continued my journey, and reached Sangor at 2 a.m. My shoulders were blistered by the sun, and my feet in an awful condition through my march of 118 miles. With these exceptions I was in perfect condition, and suffered no ill effects.

When viewed through a 21st century lens this ripping yarn gives us a glimpse of the mores of British colonial rule.

It is a ‘boy’s own adventure’, taking place in the romantic world of the British Raj. India is a playground for the British. The wild beasts and jungles of the subcontinent are reduced to an exotic backdrop for a story that illustrates the resilience and determination of the British character.

Lance-Corporal Atkinson’s descriptions of the Indian people he encounters emphasise their ‘other-ness’: they don’t think like the soldier; they don’t understand his motives or behaviour.

It would be easy to go further and judge the colonial-era attitudes that permeate Atkinson’s tale. I prefer to focus on understanding the times and places in which my great-grandfather lived.

Featured image: Detail from map of Central Provinces and Berar. Jubbulpore is top centre, with Damoh and Saugor to the northwest. Source: The Imperial Gazetteer of India 1909. [ONLINE] Available at: This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

A menagerie at sea

It is said that good company makes a journey seem shorter. But what if you are at sea for a month, travelling with a large collection of exotic Indian fauna?

Andy Duncan booked passage on the S.S. Janus, a steamer that sailed between India and Australia transporting whatever would turn a profit. Regular cargo on the Australia to India run was brumbies for the Indian army. The ship was fitted to carry over 1,000 horses on four decks.

In December 1911 the Janus’ 900 tons of cargo included zoological specimens for Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

NEW ARRIVALS AT PERTH ZOO (1912, January 3), Great Southern Herald, p. 1. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
NEW ARRIVALS AT PERTH ZOO (1912, January 3), Great Southern Herald, p. 1. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Also on board were

  • a porcupine
  • a mongoose
  • toucans
  • two spotted deer
  • two Arabian sheep, “said to be double-tailed”
  • “some 60 members of the simian race”, including four barefaced monkeys and two baboons
  • Indian tea and jute fabric
  • 876 bales of branbags

Andy was one of forty-nine passengers and crew.

Imagine the trip to Australia. The smell of horse sweat and manure probably remained from previous journeys. Screeches from the caged monkeys would have punctuated the air, over the rhythmic clanking of the steam engine.

A later traveller on the Janus recalled,

It was a big steam engine that rattled all the time… Some damned steam pipes that went through our cabin gave off an everlasting bang, bang, bang!  But you get used to anything if you’re with it long enough and are tired enough

On reaching the Australian coast, the final weeks of the voyage must have dragged, docking at Fremantle then Adelaide then Melbourne before finally arriving in Sydney. At each port Andy probably said a fond farewell to the birds and animals as they were unloaded.

S.S. Janus voyage timeline

Dec 5 1911  Left Calcutta

Dec 14 1911  Left Colombo

Dec 28 1911  Left Fremantle

Dec 30 1911  Passed Breaksea Island (near Albany Western Australia) heading East

Jan 2 1912  Arrived Adelaide. Arrived at the Semaphore anchorage on Tuesday evening and berthed at McLaren Wharf on Wednesday morning

Jan 4 1912  Left Adelaide

Jan 6 1912  Arrived Melbourne

Jan 12 1912  Arrived Sydney


Schultz, C., 1995. Beyond the Big Run. University of Queensland Press.

Featured image: S.S. Janus photograph by Allan C. Green. State Library of Victoria. H91.108/1923

Peacetime service 1902-1911

Andy spent 1902 serving in the United Kingdom, where he was promoted to Lance Corporal and then Corporal. He achieved his 3rd class certificate of education (required for promotion to Corporal) in November 1902.

On 22 December 1902 Andy was part of a draft posted to India, where the 1st Battalion was on garrison duty.

Andy’s service record in The British National Archives (WO97 series) gives only the briefest outline of his time in India. Hart’s Annual Army List confirms the regiment’s movements, while details of soldiers’ daily routine in the heat and dust can be found in Richard Holmes’ book, Sahib: the British soldier in India 1750-1914.

The trip to India by steamer took about 6 weeks. Andy arrived in Calcutta [Kolkata] at the beginning of February 1902.

Andy joined the 1st Battalion at Jubbulpore [Jabalpur] in Bengal. He had arrived at the coolest time of the year and the weather into March would have been quite pleasant; cold, foggy mornings giving way to warm afternoons. Once summer arrived, however, temperatures shot north of 40 degrees, and work in the heat of the day became impossible. In Sahib one soldier describes the weather in May as “hot as human nature can well support”.  The monsoon season brought some relief, but temperatures remained around 30 degrees until winter arrived in November.

As a new arrival, Andy was probably baited with tales of the poisonous snakes and man-eating tigers that lay in wait for the freshman soldier. There was some truth in these stories, as death by snake-bite was quite common in Jubbulpore. Tigers were less common, but did appear from time to time and caused great excitement. A tiger had been shot on the Jubbulpore golf links a few years earlier.

"Wild Beasts in India." Australian Town and Country Journal (1900, November 17), p.38. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
“Wild Beasts in India.” Australian Town and Country Journal (1900, November 17), p.38. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The nature of garrison duty in India meant that soldiers often had time on their hands. This gave Andy the opportunity to continue his education and work towards attaining his sergeant’s stripes. He studied writing and dictation, mathematics including proportions, interest, fractions and averages, and all forms of regimental accounting.

While only officers were required to study the Hindi language, Andy almost certainly learned enough colloquial language to speak pidgin Anglo-Indian with battalion servants and locals.

When not on duty men would occupy themselves by drinking, gambling at cards, playing backgammon or chess, and reading. Crafts were a popular activity. Perhaps it was in India that Andy learned or developed his woodworking skills to pass the time. A parquetry drinks tray and cribbage box crafted by Andy in later years have been handed down in the family.

Andy passed his class for rank of sergeant on 21 September 1903, and was awarded his second-class certificate of education on 23 March 1904.

In May 1906 Andy was stationed further east in Mhow, on transport duties. Then in 1907 the battalion was posted to Ranikhet Cantonment in northeast India. The move between garrisons probably consisted of a long, slow train journey of several days bookended by formal marches. The heat meant that the battalion would move at night and camp during the day.  Sahib describes how the rest camps were alive with activity and noise:

The constant jabbering of the natives, and the roaring of the camels, together with elephants and buffaloes, reminds one of the striking contrast between India and peaceful England … The women of Bengal beat all I ever saw, for they will fight, and keep up such a chatter that they may be heard above the din of the Camp.

Ranikhet was a forested hill station in sight of the western Himalayas. Andy would have welcomed the cool summers after the heat of Bengal and the central plains, but the heavy snow and near-zero temperatures in December would have required some adjustment.

Ranikhet Cantonment, Uttarakhand
Ranikhet Cantonment, Uttarakhand. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Andy was promoted to Sergeant on 28 January 1907. He then sought and was granted permission to extend his service to complete 12 years with the colours.

The battalion remained at Ranikhet into 1908, then moved to the Lahore Cantonment (now in Pakistan).

The battalion’s activities in northern India were set against a background of increasing civil and religious unrest across the country. British newspapers reported concerns of seditious acts in the Punjab, political agitation in Bengal and Calcutta, and “the promotion of mischief of the gravest and most formidable kind” in Lahore. From May 1907 British troops were on patrol in Lahore, prepared to act swiftly and firmly against any challenge to British colonial rule. The South Lancashires would remain in the north of the country until the beginning of the First World War.

In 1909 Andy was posted to England for 6 months before rejoining the battalion. In 1910 he completed a musketry course at Changla Gali.

The 1911 British Census records Sergeant Andrew Duncan stationed at Napier Barracks in Karachi. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

On 2 December 1911, having completed 12 years with the regiment, Andy left the British Army. He made his way to Australia, sailing from Calcutta.

Passenger List from SS Janus. VPRS 7667 Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports). Public Records Office Victoria.
No longer Sergeant. Mr. A. Duncan sailed on the SS Janus from Calcutta to Australia in December 1911. VPRS 7667 Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports). Public Records Office Victoria.

Sources 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Class: RG14; Piece: 34989; Page: 2. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

British Army Service Records. The National Archives UK. WO96/684/108.

Hart’s Annual Army List. 1902 – 1911. Vol. 63 – 72 . London: John Murray

Holmes, R. 2006. Sahib: The British Soldier in India 1750-1914. United Kingdom: Harper Perennial.

VPRS 7667 Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports). Public Records Office Victoria.

Featured image: British Infantry line, Mhow Cantonment, India. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Boer War service 1899-1902

The Transvaal-War Inevitable
THE TRANSVAAL. (1899, October 2). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 5. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Andy joined the British Army in September 1899 as talk of war between Britain and the Boers reached fever pitch. The family story is that Andy lied about his age to enlist, and his attestation papers record his age as 18 years 1 month when really he was only 17. He was described as 5 feet 4¾ inches tall, with fresh complexion, blue eyes, brown hair.

Andy served in the South Lancashire Regiment from 26 September 1899 to 2 December 1911. He volunteered first for the South Lancashire Militia and soon transferred to the 1st Battalion, nicknamed the “Fighting Fortieth”. His military records indicate that he served in the 1st Battalion in South Africa and later in India.

Andy was not in the first South Lancashire contingent to sail for South Africa. On 30 November 1899 Andy would have joined the wildly enthusiastic crowds farewelling the South Lancashires as they marched out of the barracks. Andy was probably disappointed not to be going himself. Men were desperate not to miss out on an adventure that many thought would be over by Christmas.

Private Duncan finally departed for South Africa in early June 1900. It is likely that he sailed from Southampton on 8 June on board the newly-built RMS Tagus. 

John Downham’s book, Red Roses on the Veldt: Lancashire Regiments in the Boer War, 1899-1902 helps to expand upon the terse entries in Andy’s service record.

The voyage to South Africa would have been new and exciting for young Andy. Dolphins leapt and raced alongside the ship as it sailed south, the waters alight with phosphorescence at night.

On board, the daily routine included cleaning the ship, physical drills and rifle practice. Men passed their off-duty hours playing cards or holding impromptu smoking concerts, at which each man was expected to sing or recite verse. Perhaps Andy recited the poems of Robbie Burns, which he was known for in later years.

The ship reached Table Bay on 29 June. It was a period of relative quiet in South Africa: large, formal military operations were all but over, the capitals of the two Boer republics were under British control, and some British observers were predicting the end of the war. But the Boer guerilla campaign was just beginning.

Andy travelled north from Cape Town to join the regiment in the southern Transvaal, where they were tasked with securing rail and telegraph lines between Standerton and Volksrust. Their duties included digging trenches to protect the camps, manning isolated outposts along the railways, and patrolling the lines. They kept a close eye on Boer farms in the area and conducted searches for arms. When ammunition or weapons were found, orders were to confiscate farm stock and burn the farm. The Boer commandos were never far away; the soldiers had to remain vigilant and ready to fend off raids on the camp.

British infantry crossing the Vaal River
British infantry crossing the Vaal River, South Africa, c.1900. Australian War Memorial collection P00295.303
On 4 September 1900 the battalion marched south-east as part of the 11th (Lancashire) Brigade. It was a 90-mile march through Wakkerstroom to Utrecht and on to Vryheid. Andy would likely have escorted guns and equipment carriages pulled by slow-moving oxen.

The march was dusty and dirty. Men’s feet blistered and bled. The weight of their rifles bruised their shoulders. Tents or shelters were rare and there was little opportunity to wash off the accumulated mud, blood and sweat. At the end of each day Andy would have slept in the dirt, his greatcoat wrapped around him as protection against the bitterly cold night.

The 1st Battalion took up garrison duty at De Jager’s Drift on the Buffalo River on 10 November. Here Andy spent an uneventful two months, though not far away at Vryheid the Boers mounted a serious attack that killed 11 men. The South Lancashires left De Jager’s Drift in January 1901 to relieve the Vryheid garrison. The 3 day march saw several brushes with the enemy but no serious fighting.

Block House near De Jagers Drift, Transvaal
Block house on the road between De Jagers Drift and Vryheid, Transvaal, occupied by the South Lancashire Regiment. A uniformed dummy holding a flag stands guard. Australian War Memorial collection PO1220.003
On 14 January the Battalion reached Vryheid and entered the garrison on Lancaster Hill, a high rocky plateau on the northern outskirts of the town. Andy would spend the rest of his time in South Africa stationed here. Once defences were strengthened and the threat of attack had died down, Andy would have settled into a routine of parades and drills, work parties and outpost or sentry duty.

Despite Vryheid being relatively peaceful throughout 1901, the South African weather and the British army staple diet of ration biscuit and bully beef continued to take a toll on the regiment. Of the thirty-five deaths in the South Lancashires while Andy was stationed at Lancaster Hill, twenty-one of them were from illness or disease. Another two deaths were caused directly by the elements: one due to sunstroke and one due to a lightning strike (which also injured eight others).

Andy fell ill with enteric (typhoid) fever on 14 November 1901. His condition was first reported as “dangerously ill”, but by 30 November he was considered to be out of danger.

Andy was posted back to England 29 January 1902, before the final major battles of February – April. He had passed his initiation into military life. He was awarded the standard service medals for his time in South Africa: the Queen’s South Africa Medal with clasps for service in Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal, and the King’s South Africa Medal with two clasps for service in South Africa in 1901 and 1902.


Anglo Boer War website – Shipping records – June 1900. 2013. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 April 2013].

British Army Service Records. The National Archives UK. WO96/684/108; WO97/4738/080.

Downham, J, 2000. Red Roses on the Veldt: Lancashire Regiments in the Boer War, 1899-1902. Lancaster, UK. Carnegie Publishing Ltd.

Roll of Honour – Ships – RMS Tagus. 2008. Roll of Honour – Ships – RMS Tagus. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 19 April 2013].

1900 ‘DRAFTS FOR THE FRONT’, Lincolnshire Echo (Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England) 8 June 1900, p.1

1900 ‘ITEMS OF INTEREST’, Gloucestershire Echo (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England) 8 June 1900, p.4

1900 ‘TRANSPORT ARRIVAL’, Morning Post (London, England) 30 June 1900, p.5

1901 ‘CASUALTY LIST’, Lancashire Evening Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) 18 November 1901, p.4

1901 ‘CASUALTY LIST’, Lancashire Evening Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) 4 December 1901, p.4

Featured image: RMS Tagus c.1910. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer

More than just an Original Anzac

Andrew Stewart Duncan c.1915. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.
My great-grandfather Andrew “Andy” Duncan was a soldier for a good part of his adult life. The military service that defined him to his wife and family was his enlistment as an original Anzac, but by 1914 Andy already had 12 years’ British Army experience in England, South Africa and India and a year in the South Australian Militia. The story of 17 year old Andy joining the army and travelling the world is seldom told and the details almost forgotten.

By piecing together war diaries, military histories, newspaper articles and family stories we can start to see the man with a love of empire and military tradition, a strong sense of civic duty and an independent streak that sometimes got him into trouble. While there are gaps in the story and questions that might never be answered, the 100th anniversary of the First World War seems a fitting time to tell Andy’s story.

Andrew Stewart Duncan


Andy Duncan was born on 15 July 1882 in the family home at 9 Damside in Newton on Ayr, Scotland. He was the second son and the fourth of ten children born to John and Elizabeth Duncan (nee Stewart).

Andy’s world was working class, poor and built on coal. For generations the men of his mother’s family had been coal miners. His father had worked his way up from stoker to engine driver for the Glasgow and South Western Railway, operating locomotives between the Ayrshire collieries and the local industries hungry for coal.The local gasworks stood on the south side of Damside, the stink and soot from converting coal to gas a part of daily life.

Damside was a cobbled street of single-storey houses of brown-grey stone and thatched roofs. 9 Damside had been “Stewart’s Land” for several generations at least, and was the home of Mary Stewart, Elizabeth’s grandmother. Here the Duncans lodged along with Elizabeth’s sister Mary and her husband, engine driver William Cowan.

Between the two families there were nine children in the house when Andy was born. There would be sixteen children crammed around the Damside dinner table before the Duncans moved into their own home about 1890.

None of the Duncan children would take up work in the mines or on the railways. The industrialisation and urbanisation of Scotland opened up new and different employment opportunities, but did John and Elizabeth encourage their children to look away from the back-breaking and often dangerous work of their forebears?

Andy’s elder brother John worked as a boot finisher before moving to Clydebank to work as a machinist and driller for the Singer Manufacturing Company; his younger brothers Anthony and Hugh found apprenticeships as a baker and printer respectively.

Andy seems to have struck out on his own. By 1898 he had left Ayr for the booming port of Liverpool, where he worked as a labourer for a “Mr Stewart”. Was the Stewart name just a coincidence, or was there a connection with his mother’s family?

In 1899 when Andy attested for the South Lancashire Militia, his address was recorded as “Regin Street” Liverpool. Old maps of Liverpool don’t seem to include a Regin Street, but there is a Regent Street not far from the docks. Could Andy’s Scottish accent have been misheard by a Lancashire recruiting officer?


Statutory Births 

Scotland Census 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911.

Scotland Valuation Rolls 1885, 1895, 1915, 1920.

British Army Service Records. The National Archives UK. WO96/684/108 .

Featured image: The Twa Brigs, Ayr. Postcard. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Where am I from?


It’s not so straightforward to say where home is after living in numerous places in Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Australia again. I sometimes feel homesick for Japan, though my wife asks how an Australian can use that word about Japan.

Now I live in Geelong, Victoria. As I’ve learnt more about my forebears I’ve been surprised to find how many of my earliest Australian ancestors lived or passed through Geelong. Five of my great-great-great grandfathers were here in the 1850s.

  • Two free-settler British ancestors first set foot on Australian soil here, John Nicholls from Cornwall in 1849 and Henry Palmer from Kent in 1852. John was a miller, Henry a bricklayer.
  • Another free-settler, Somerset labourer Solomon Ball, married Frances Victoria Hemmens at Christ Church, Geelong, in 1855.
  • One of my convict ancestors spent some time in Van Diemen’s Land first, but later came this way. Henry Steward, transported for 14 years for stealing a velveteen coat and a pair of trousers, came to Geelong around 1846 after receiving his conditional pardon. He worked as a carpenter and stonemason in Geelong district. Henry buried four of his children during his ten years in Geelong.
  • During the gold rush George Powell walked 85 kilometres from Ballarat to Geelong to deposit his gold in the bank. Riding a horse would have made George a potential target for bushrangers, so he chose to walk.

Gold, land or work drew all these families to Ballarat, where I was born generations later. I am proud of my Ballarat history, but it also feels right to have put down roots in Geelong.