An Australian with the Gordon Highlanders at Tirah, 1897

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An Australian with the Gordon Highlanders at Tirah, 1897

Postby RedRod » 01 Sep 2015 05:05

I have been gathering information for a biography of Robert James "Boomerang Bob" GORDON.
Bob Gordon qualified as an acting-lieutenant in the Queensland Mounted Infantry in 1890 but peacetime soldiering was not his style. Through family connections he was able to secure a secondment to the Gordon Highlanders & arrived only days after that Regiment's famous charge at Dargai Heights in 1897. According to contemporary accounts, Bob Gordon was assigned a batman (also named Gordon) who kept a detailed campaign diary - but nothing is known of this. However, Bob did send exciting letters back to his family in Townsville, Queensland, describing the ferocity of the fighting. Upon his return to Queensland in 1898 he was awarded the Indian General Service medal with bar for Tirah & was about to return to his livestock trade when war in South Africa loomed. Bob Gordon was made a Lieutenant in B Company of the Queensland Mounted Infantry's First Contingent. While scouting around the Brandewan River, Bob was hit in the right foot by a Martini-Henry bullet which crippled him for life. Rather than return to his native Queensland, Bob chose to remain in the infant Colony of Rhodesia where he recommenced his livestock trade. Although he walked with difficulty, Bob remained a superb horseman whose skill & military experience were once again called on during WWI to fight the Germans in Africa. Bob went on to become part of colonial society & was a founding member of the Bulawayo Club &, along with his friend Robert Baden-Powell, founded the Scouting Movement. Bob was noted for his boomerang demonstrations (the Bulawayo Club still hangs the original boomerang beneath his portrait) & swiftness with which he killed snakes by cracking them like a whip. Bob died in 1944 due to heart failure and newspaper accounts record that all of Bulawayo, black and white, turned out to honour him.
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Re: An Australian with the Gordon Highlanders at Tirah, 1897

Postby bill wright » 01 Sep 2015 23:18

He sounds a fascinating character ! Best of luck with the biography. Can I ask - where are his exciting Tirah Campaign letters ? Are they in a museum somewhere or still with his family. I would love to read them.
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Re: An Australian with the Gordon Highlanders at Tirah, 1897

Postby RedRod » 02 Sep 2015 03:09

His letters were all handed by his family directly to the local newspaper (mostly The Townsville Herald, The North Queensland Herald the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin) for publication. His letters are too numerous & lengthy to reproduce in their entirety here, however, I've copy & pasted one of his letters (North Queensland Herald 2 Feb 1898, p.21);

Since my last communication to you, the 3rd and 4th brigades, constituting the Second Division, have been completely shut out from the rest of the world. We have received no mail, nor could we get any letter away, the post office having been sent back from Bagh to Mastura on the 4th instant, whereas we moved forward towards Bara, via Dwatoi and Barkai. The 4th Brigade moved first (7th), one day in advance of the 3rd Brigade, but the pass was so frightfully rough that our transport was blocked only two miles from Bagh by the transport of the 4th Brigade, the bulk of which had been unable to get through to Dwatoi the day previously; so the majority of the 4th Brigade had been without kits the night before at Dwatoi. The Gordons were rear guard from Bagh on the morning of the 8th, but though we expected to have a very warm “send–off”, we were agreeably disappointed, as hardly a shot was fired at us, though the 2nd Brigade was having a good deal of fighting apparently on their way to the Archanga Pass from Maidan. This brigade had been camped on the night of the 7th instant not far from Bagh, and were starting on the morning of the 8th for the Archanga Pass. This movement seemed to engage the attention of the Zukka Khels, so they did not trouble us that day, and we were passing through Mallikdin Khel country soon after leaving Bagh, and there fellows, who only the day before had been our enemies, now became our friends, and picquetted all the heights on either side of this vile valley, hoping by doing so we should spare their villages, these picquets acted fairly, and did not fire on us, though we were compelled to camp in as bad a defile as can well be imagined. We were only two miles from Bagh, though we had started at daybreak, and were struggling to push our transport through till 8 p.m. From this, you can imagine the roughness of the valley. We had to cross the Shal Ubah (twenty waters) many times, after dark as well as during the day, and we found it frightfully cold for wading. This can well be imagined when I tell you that snow had been falling at Bagh on the morning of the 8th instant. We had to wade through ice cold water well over our knees in depth fully twelve miles on the 8th, but on the 9th we had to wade oftener through the same river before we reached Dwatoi. At Dwatoi we learned that the K.O.S. [King’s Own Shropshire] Borderers and the Dorsets [Regiment] had each done some very fine work in taking heights when the 4th Brigade first pitched their camp there. The enemy tried to prevent certain heights from being held by picquets, and we gave the picquets a very warm reception; but when charged with fixed bayonets they gave way, but not before shooting down some of the picquet. On the morning of the 10th both brigades started, the 4th Brigade in advance. There was a good deal of opposition shown to our advance, and the rear guard had a good amount of work to do as usual, but not so much as we expected. The Division could not all do the same march, so the 3rd Brigade had to camp about three miles short of the 4th Brigade camp. On the morning of the 11th the 3rd Brigade made a very early start (all up at 5 a.m.), hoping to catch up the 4th Brigade that night at Kharana. From the time we moved until late that night we were more or less under a hot fire, and the rear guard (Gordons) say the 11th was about the worst day on this campaign. On the night of the 10th rain had fallen, more or less, all night, and during the day of the 11th a miserable drizzle had kept up most of the day, so the low ground near the river was very heavy going indeed for transport, most of the ground having been lately ploughed, and the mountainous parts very slippery, causing a number of transport animals to fall down. These delays were very bad for the rear guard, as we were compelled to hold on to positions to allow the transport to get safely away, and we were pressed very hotly by the enemy, and should have been retiring more quickly. We soon began to have casualties, and the dhoolie bearers were in request early in the day. These native dhoolie bearers are a most miserable class of animals, and on such a cold, wet day as the 11th was they are almost useless. Our men had to take several of the dhoolies from them and carry them themselves to get the wounded along quickly out of fire. An Afridi delights at shooting at a dhoolie. The mark is a good one, and if he misses the wounded man in the dhoolie he rightly thinks he has a good chance of hitting one of the dhoolie bearers. While writing about dhoolies, I may be permitted to remark that I think the dhoolie a primitive and unsuitable contrivance, being much too heavy and cumbersome, and affording a grand mark for the enemy to fire at. We have a lighter wood in Australia than the male bamboo, which should be just the thing for making a hooded stretcher. On the 11th the rear guard had good reason to complain of dhoolies and dhoolie bearers, as our men themselves had to carry our wounded for miles. The 4th Brigade camp was reached by the advance parties of the 3rd Brigade, but not till well after dark; but the rear guard was unable to reach camp, so had to rush a house and take shelter for the night. This house was very gallantly taken by Captain Ninacke [Henry Percy Uniacke], of the Gordons, who only had a few men with him, but they charged the enemy with fixed bayonets and secured possession. They shouted and yelled as they rushed, and the enemy thought there were a great many more than there really were. I firmly believe we would have had a most serious loss had their house not been taken for shelter, as we had a fast increasing enemy on both flanks and rear, and any moment we expected to meet a strong force right between us and the camp we were trying to reach. We were hampered by the wounded we were carrying, every dhoolie being full. When we reached this house, attracted to it by Captain Ninacke’s whistle, Major [George Thomas Frederick] Downman, of the Gordons, who was in charge of the whole party, decided we must remain in the house until morning. We were lucky in having such a competent officer to decide this question, and to conduct the defence of the position. Another reason for remaining was the scarcity of ammunition. We had been firing so much all day that many men only had two or three rounds left out of the hundred they started with. In this house, which we christened Fort Downman, we had about 400 men in all, mostly Gordon Highlanders, two companies of Dorsets, some of the (half) 1st and 2nd Goorkhas, and some of the 2nd Punjaub Infantry. The part covered by the roof was only a small portion, mostly used for the wounded, so nearly all the men were exposed to the weather all night, except that the walls kept the wind off us a good deal. It is easy to imagine we had a rough night; no food, no blankets, wet clothes (caused by wading in the river and the drizzling rain). The thermometer had been down to 11 degrees the night before, but that night we felt as though it was much lower. Fortunately, we had two doctors in Fort Downman, so the wounded were attended to at once, though the doctors were greatly handicapped under such circumstances. Many of the men slept on the roof; others acted as sentries on the same. There was a mud wall round the roof about three feet high, but there was a gap at one part about three feet wide, where the wall had been broken down to about half the height- viz, 18 inches – and this allowed men on one side of the roof to be exposed to a fire from the crest of a little hill about 600 yards away. The enemy waited ‘til daylight before firing from the little hill, and then did not show themselves at all, but quietly waited their opportunity, which came pretty soon after daylight. Our men shifted their position somewhat on the roof to fire at the enemy in the opposite direction from this hill, and exposed their backs to that position, when immediately a well-timed volley was fired at them, with the result that one man was killed, hit twice – once through the head and once through the heart; and four others were severely wounded. After that we did not expose any man to fire from that range of our door to a nicety from a village about eight-hundred yards away, and any man showing himself at the door was fired at. One man was hit there and one shot through his coat. Having now more wounded and no dhoolies, with the enemy posted well in all directions round us, meant that we must await reinforcements and more ammunition before we could move from “Fort Downman”, so we endeavoured to establish communication by signal from our roof to the camp without success. We expected a force out any moment to look for us, and about 8 a.m. three scouts appeared from a company of the 2nd P.I., and we signalled them. They made a rush for our house, but one poor chap was killed a few yards from it, and another was hit in two places as he was climbing over the sangar at our doorway. From them we learned that their company of the 2nd P.I. was at a certain village, so we signalled them, and they signalled back to camp that we wanted dhoolies and ammunition. At 11 a.m. we were supplied with both by a party of the Scotch Fusiliers and the K.O.S.B.’s, and with the aid of these and a mountain battery, we were able to get the wounded to camp, though several more men were wounded and one man killed before reaching it. On reaching there we were glad to learn that orders had been altered; that now the 4th Brigade was to remain till the following morning (13th), and not go on that day, as originally intended. The 3rd Brigade now had so many wounded to carry, and most of them were so worn out, that they hoped for the assistance of the 4th Brigade. On the morning of the 13th the 3rd brigade marched off first, which meant easier work (advancing is always easier than retiring when fighting Pathans). This proved to be the case again, the advance brigade not meeting with any very serious opposition; but the 4th Brigade had such another day as the 11th. Fortunately, the march was a much shorter one, and the road was dry, and so were the men, which alone made a great difference, especially among the dhoolie bearers and drabbies. If they are cold and wet, they are simply useless, or worse, because they delay us when they drop behind and we have to protect them. The two camps were separated by more than a mile on the night of the 13th instant and at each camp the enemy gave a good deal of trouble all night. They managed to kill one officer and wound another, some men were killed and others wounded in each brigade. The 3rd Brigade met some of General Hammond’s party that evening from Bharkai. Fortunately, this party had brought out a number of dhoolies and khadars (bearers). Next day we (3rd Division) were all camped within a mile of General Hammond’s force, and in the Orakzais country, which is friendly. It is hard to estimate the loss of the enemy, but on the 11th and 13th they must have lost very heavily – several hundreds, I should think. We have had no sniping since passing General Hammond’s camp on 14th instant, and it is a more peaceful sleep now’ no bullets whistling through our tent, and no need to dig out a hole to lie in. A drabbie, over a fire, was heard to describe the last week’s march very tersely and well. Roz roz! Pawnee pawnee! Goli goli! Ping ping! which, translated is: water water! Bullets bullets! Ping ping!
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Re: An Australian with the Gordon Highlanders at Tirah, 1897

Postby Bushman » 02 Sep 2015 03:50

An extremely distinguished and remarkable soldier finishing as Lt Col CMG,DSO, OBE 4xMiD. He also seems to have served with the Gordons Mtd Inf Coy in South Africa. The OZBOER Database records this about him:
As a Major, Robert GORDON and was one of the officers instrumental in raising the Northern Rhodesian Rifles at the outbreak of WW1. Initially he commanded a unit involved in border raids against the Germans. Later when the Rifles were being used for garrison duties, he resigned and was appointed Intelligence Officer in German South-West Angolaland and on the borders of Northern Rhodesia, becoming head of Rhodesian Intelligence. A party of Germans of the Camel Corps were trying to break through from German South-West to German East Africa. Robert pursued and captured them with a party of Northern Rhodesian Scouts after they had penetrated far into Angola. For the latter part of the war, he commanded Remount Depots in British East Africa, at Mombasa and then Maktau, Daressalaam, Kilwa and Linde. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and Mentioned in Despatches (LG 8.2.1917 page 1353). The Supplementary medal roll for the 1914-15 Star for Northern Rhodesia Rifles (Scouts) shows him as Major DSO OBE s released from service on 15.8.1915. The Order of the British Empire was awarded to him in 1918 and he was created a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1919.
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Re: An Australian with the Gordon Highlanders at Tirah, 1897

Postby Peter » 03 Sep 2015 03:01

Rod,

As a former honorary member of QMI's Mess, I never expected to see a reference to them on this (sub) Forum!

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Re: An Australian with the Gordon Highlanders at Tirah, 1897

Postby RedRod » 03 Sep 2015 13:18

I have quite a few photos of Bob Gordon on service including a group photo of Gordon Highlander officers in NW India, 1897. Bob is conspicuous in his QMI slouch hat. In fact it was a photo I bought on Ebay from South Africa back in 2003 which sparked my interest as I thought I knew all the QMI officers who went to South Africa - so why didn't I know much about Bob Gordon? I soon began to uncover his life in Rhodesia & realised here was a story that needed to be told. The article I'm writing on Bob Gordon will be sent to the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, although I'm planning a separate article for the Military Historical Society of Australia on his military career (& make use of his exciting correspondence). Bob seems a larger than life character more often found in the ripping Boys' Own adventures penned by George Henty & a myth even circulated that, while returning to Australia from India in 1898, he was said to have volunteered to serve with the US forces then fighting in the Spanish-American War. Whether such an offer was ever made or not is questionable, but it is clear he never served & continued on to Queensland & a month after arriving a ceremony was held at the Brisbane Victoria Barracks where Lord Lamington pinned Gordon's Indian General Service medal (with clasp for Tirah) to him.
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Re: An Australian with the Gordon Highlanders at Tirah, 1897

Postby Banker » 05 Sep 2015 03:35

His medal is on display at the Maryborough Military and Colonial Museum in QLD and a picture on page 187 of Australians Awarded.

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Re: An Australian with the Gordon Highlanders at Tirah, 1897

Postby QSVC » 13 May 2016 01:12

Very interesting.........I have Robert Gordon appointed as Provisional Lieutenant on the 11th of June 1890, Lieutenant on the 9th of May 1892.....Volunteered for service with 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders and awarded the IGS with bar Punjab Frontier 1897, presented by the Qld Governor at Victoria Barracks, Brisbane on the 23rd of February 1899 by which time he was noted as Captain. Some biographical detail in 'A Most Promising Corps' published by the Colonial Forces Study Group in 2010.

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